CHICAGO - The biggest threat to human health presented by bed bugs is the toxic effect of the poisons sprayed by their panicked victims.
A resurgence of infestations of the nasty critters insured a full house at a seminar sponsored by the Safer Pest Control Project here Dec. 2. Scores of attendees from area public housing, hotel and apartment management groups came to learn the latest technologies in the field.
Ruth Kerzee, assistant director of the Project emphasized that increased use of pesticides is not pest control. "People get so freaked out by bed bugs they will spray anything to get rid of them," she said, "endangering children and the environment."
Ironically, bed bugs are not known to transmit diseases. Unlike mosquitos, which insert their probuscuses under our skin, potentially introducing disease-causing parasites, bed bugs suck their blood meals from outside, in a kind of one-way valve action. More than 50 percent of humans have no reaction to bed bug bites, and the insects' presence is only made known by the miserable reaction of their more sensitive bedmates. A more subtle sign is the presence of tiny traces of blood on the bedding. But 100 percent of humans find the pests disgusting, so it's important to find a non-toxic approach to controlling them.
Why are "spray jockeys" ineffective? First of all, it's not because of a ban on DDT; the 21st century generations of bed bugs are totally resistant to DDT. Rather, the tiny insects, each no bigger than an apple seed, safely snuggle themselves into seams of bedding and cracks of furniture while their human victims inhale and absorb sprayed neurotoxins. Children are especially vulnerable: pesticides are a trigger for asthma and learning disabilities.
Kersee, who has a masters in public health and focuses on issues of pesticide use in school and child care facilities laid out the problem: Kids have a faster metabolism, are nearer to the ground and have more hand-to-mouth activity, all increasing their intake of toxins. Their enzyme systems are less developed to deal with them.
Pregnant women are also of special concern. They can unknowingly endanger the neurological development of their developing fetuses. In adults, Parkinsons disease and lymphoma are known effects of pesticides.
Kersee pointed out that since pesticides were only invented 60 years ago, many of their effects are just being discovered.
The seminar emphasized non-chemical methods of fighting bed bugs. One of the most intriguing was heat. Heating a room or even an entire apartment to over 130 degrees F for more than two hours will wipe out all insects (and their eggs). Professional equipment is required for this safe and effective treatment. If you're lucky enough to live in sub Arctic conditions, you can achieve the same objective by leaving infested objects in sub-zero (F) temperatures for several days.
Vaccuuming can knock down but not eliminate active infestations but it's important to use prescribed methods to avoid inadvertently spreading the bugs. And vacuuming will not remove eggs so it must be combined with other methods.
Useful resources can be found at Safer Pest Control Project's website www.spcpweb.org.
Coming soon: bed bugs and globalization.