Non-Toxic Pest Control, Beating Out the Bedbugs

 bedbugsIn the summer of 2011, New York homes, hotels and hospital wings suffered an infestation of bedbugs.
 
Bed bugs are yucky – and even uglier if seen up close under a microscope. This is the kind of face that haunts nightmares about evil aliens taking over Earth; move over, Cloverfield.
 
It seemed almost apocalyptic at the peak of the infestation, with bugs showing up in such seemingly unlikely places as the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Google’s New York offices, Victoria’s Secret Lenox Hill store, Carnegie Hall, and the Time Warner center.  In fact, according to tabloid newspaper The Daily News, one in 10 New York City residents had (and/or have) bedbugs in their domicile – that’s double the amount estimated only two years previously.
 
Nor is the invasion aimed at New York City alone. Across the United States, as far away as Alaska, these tiny but hardy insects are multiplying, 100 percent more from year to year. According to University of Nebraska Lincoln Extension Service Barb Ogg, this doubling is the sort of invasion which allows bedbugs to spread from motels, senior living sites and drug/alcohol treatment facilities to hospital wings, college dorms, homeless shelters and some of the best and most famous restaurant/hotel combinations. That’s because bedbugs don’t care who is rich, just so they get their fix of blood. Once they do, they don’t need to eat again for at least a year.
 
The U.S. got a good handle on the bed bug problem during and after World War II, and up to 17 years into the Vietnam War (1972), by using DDT. To bed bugs – indeed, to almost all insects – DDT was as repellant as garlic is to a vampire. This was in the early years of the insecticide revolution (1891 to 1927), when Swiss chemist Paul H. Miller won the 1948 Nobel Prize for his work in improving the efficiency of DDT as a contact poison. This, in turn, spurred an agricultural boom, with Americans getting an abundance of food while bedbugs, learning to adapt to a variety of poisons, went from near extinction back to the perpetual pest category.
 
This inspired a new generation of chemical weapons, or pesticides, to take bedbugs out. Some, like DDT, are as harmful to small humans and pets as they are to creepy crawlies. And while DDT was admittedly the impetus behind the agricultural boom after WWII, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, also gave birth to a more important perception or point of view, this one called “the environmental movement”.
 
By 1972, a growing body of evidence showed that DDT was more harmful than beneficial. With a decade-long “half life”, and its ability to hide out in body fat, DDT is most dangerous to creatures at the top of the food chain (i.e., humans, whales and ungulates). The greatest misfortune arising from its use was the thinning of bird egg shells, which almost made some species of avian predators like eagles and peregrine falcons extinct.
 
DDT was banned in 1972, but the ban merely opened the door to compounding insecticides of greater and greater chemical complexity – and greater and greater danger. Thus, while DDT is listed by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, or NTP, as “moderately toxic”, and by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “moderately hazardous”, Heptachlor – a second generation insecticide created in the early 1950s – is known to cause kidney disease, liver disease, cancer, infertility, neurological problems like convulsions, and inadequate or irregular fetal development. Of particular note was the increasing incidence (up to 7 percent more) of non-Hodgkin lymphoma among toddlers and children.
 
Heptachlor was eventually added to the list of persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, which are monitored by the Stockholm Convention (on POPs). Unfortunately, when Cyclodiene-type insecticides get into the environment, they remain there, poisoning each new generation. Nor is the extended half-life, estimated from 2 to 14 years in soil, the biggest problem. What should frighten us all is the “biomagnification” of these toxins. In other words, if you eat an oyster contaminated with 1 gram of Heptachlor, you will end up with a “body burden” of about 2 grams. Your children will end up with even more, thanks to higher metabolic levels.
 
Rather than risking the possibility of getting bed bugs (or having them attack both you and your children), you can take steps to stop these bugs in their tracks, and the solutions aren’t nearly as noxious as the problem. Instead of paying about $1,250 for professional pesticide treatment, clean up clutter. Piles of clothes or dirty linens need to be washed in hot water and dried on a heavy cotton cycle; heat kills bed bugs. Even where it doesn’t, they hate it so much they will leave like disgruntled guests who have overstayed their welcome, and you can get back to your regular life.
 
One of the coolest tricks is food grade diatomaceous earth (DE). It is about the lowest cost method currently available, and – while perfectly safe for humans, pets and other creatures, is deadly to bed bugs because it sucks all the moisture out of them. Think of DE as a lethal weapon against arthropods – bugs with their skeleton on the outside.
 
Of course you will want to vacuum your mattress and box spring and steam clean them. You can buy a good, small steamer like the kind used to remove wrinkles from woolen suits and the like. When cleaning the bedroom, vacuum everywhere, including around baseboards and inside electrical outlets once you have removed the wall plate. Be careful and use a crevice tool; better buggy than burned to death.
 
Wrap or treat the legs of beds with something slippery like cling-wrap. Wrap (cleaned and diatomaceous-earth treated) mattresses in a larger sheet of plastic. This may make you slightly crazy as the covering snaps, crackles and pops when you roll around, but any bugs inside the mattress will be unable to reach the carbon dioxide, or CO2, that you breathe out, and those on the outside can’t get in. Keep the wrapper on for at least a week.
 
Finally, put cloth in the bottom of a bowl, draped over the sides. Then pour a can of soda pop in the bowl. Bed bugs love CO2. You can get almost the same effect from a spray can of CO2 used to clean computers and keyboards. Some users swear by dry ice in a bowl, but I’m always concerned that the wrong things will get into it!

Happy bug hunting!

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