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Bedbug Treatments Sicken More Than Bites Do

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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bedbug

Image courtesy of Flickr/Piotr Naskrecki/Harvard University/Armed Forces Pest Management Board

The ongoing bedbug epidemic has been a pain—if not full-on pestilence—for those infested and for those in constant terror of becoming so. The biting bugs are not known to carry infectious diseases like other bloodsuckers, such as ticks or mosquitoes. But the chemicals used to beat back these tiny insects seem to be making some of the bite-plagued sick.

At least 111 people in seven states reported becoming ill after coming in contact with an area treated for bedbugs (Cimex lectularius) between 2003 and 2010, according to a new report published online Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The most common symptoms were neurological effects—dizziness and headaches—shortness of breath, and gastrointestinal complaints such as nausea and vomiting. One 65-year-old North Carolina woman, who had multiple underlying conditions, died after excessive insecticide use at home, including direct application to her hair and skin, in an effort to get rid of bedbugs.

The chemicals implicated in most of the reactions were pyrethrins (natural compounds) and pyrethroids (synthetic compounds based on pyrethrins), which are both frequent insecticide ingredients. With increased use, however, some populations of bedbugs have developed a resistance to pyrethroids, which is bad for itchy humans, who might be inclined to spray more and more of the chemicals if they don’t seem to be working.

The states that participated in the illness identification program were California, Florida, Michigan, New York (where more than half the cases were reported), North Carolina, Texas and Washington. Nearly three quarters of the illnesses were from 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Most case reports came through poison control centers, which means that there are probably plenty of other instances of illness that go unreported and that have occurred in other states. It also means, though, that it is difficult to make definitive links between the bedbug treatments and the symptoms, without having more clinical knowledge of the individuals’ other health issues and their environment. So the CDC cautiously calls the link between most of the illnesses and treatments “possible,” with some 16 percent of cases being “probable” or “definite.”

Many of the reactions were likely due to people either using too much insecticide or not washing their linens after applying the poison. The modest number of reported illnesses overall “does not suggest a large public health burden,” the CDC noted. But people would be wise to use other, non-chemical control methods, such as keeping mattresses and box springs in bug-resistant covers, laundering or discarding infested items, and using temperature treatments (which can kill bugs with extreme heat or cold) provided by some extermination companies, the agency suggested. And it’s usually a good idea to seek professional help—and to stick to the instructions on chemicals, which will tell you it’s a bad idea to put the stuff directly on your sheets, or, obviously, your skin.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Desert Navy 6:46 pm 09/23/2011

    You haven’t taken into account metal health. I have seen people so traumatized by the fear of being bitten that their ability to function normally, and quality of life are severely impacted.

    It’s a shame that in this day and age that a respected journal would be so dismissive of mental health that it’s not even a consideration or mention.

    Many people suffer mental trauma for years after the infestation has been dealt with.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jazzism 9:50 pm 09/23/2011

    Yo, smart heads, try living in an infested place for a few weeks and then figure out why people take these measures to get rid of them.

    Link to this
  3. 3. busyguy 5:51 am 09/24/2011

    prevention first. inspection then remediation. there are noe easy solutions to bed bugs, but the simpliest is not getting them in the first place. inspect your hotel room, use an allersac and don’t bring your belongings back into your home without washing or inspecting them.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Alex Wild 1:21 pm 09/24/2011

    This is one of the first times I’ve ever actually seen Piotr Naskrecki’s bed bug image properly credited. Google Images returns over 9,000 instances of this image, almost none of them giving the correct source.

    Link to this
  5. 5. ASHIK 12:32 pm 09/25/2011

    Allergy to bed bug poison is a curse.Not every one get effected from it but staying away from its contact is healthy for anybody.I have never experianced bed bug biting before,might be i have not noticed it biting me.

    Presence of poison of any kind in food,bed or on any daily used materials are always dangerous to us especially small kids.

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  6. 6. leebonej 11:49 pm 10/10/2011

    This totally makes sense, all of the chemicalls cant be good. Has anybody heard how effective using heat might be? I think places should be more proactive about preventing bed bugs from getting any worse. this site: http://www.bedbug-inspector.com talks about way to be proactive against bed bugs. Either way, I don’t know what scares me more bed bugs or chemicals.

    Link to this
  7. 7. gotpest 12:23 am 08/27/2012

    First, most of these reports are likely due to people trying to take care of a bed bug problem themselves. Many of the professional products can be purchased online even though they are to only be purchased by licensed pest control operators. If you have no experience with applications of these products then you do risk the chance of overexposure. Take the people out of the figure that did there own pest control and the number would be much lower. I mean, treating your hair? Somebody actually did this? If these online companies selling pesticides can get away with what they do then the number of Self Treating Homeowners will go up and the number of people getting sick from these pesticides will increase.

    Link to this

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