(Beyond Pesticides, September 26, 2011) On September 23, 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report linking pesticides sprayed in attempts to control bed bugs to poisoning incidents and death. Because bed bugs do not transmit disease and can be controlled without pesticides, this risk is completely unnecessary. The study, “Acute Illnesses Associated with Insecticides Used to Control Bed Bugs,” utilized data from California, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Texas, and Washington. In those seven states, over 100 poisonings, including one fatality, were associated with bed bug-related insecticide use.
The CDC researchers used data from states participating in the Sentinel Event Notification System for Occupational Risks (SENSOR)-Pesticides program and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH). The authors defined “acute illness” associated with an insecticide used to control bed bugs as two or more acute adverse health effects resulting from exposure to an insecticide used for bed bug control.
The study reports: A total of 111 illnesses associated with bed bug–related insecticide use were identified; although 90 (81%) were low severity, one fatality occurred. Pyrethroids, pyrethrins, or both were implicated in 99 (89%) of the cases, including the fatality. The most common factors contributing to illness were excessive insecticide application, failure to wash or change pesticide-treated bedding, and inadequate notification of pesticide application. Although few cases of illnesses associated with insecticides used to control bed bugs have been reported, recommendations to prevent this problem from escalating include educating the public about effective bed bug management.
To make matters worse, experts agree that spraying pesticides is generally an ineffective way to control bed bugs. Bed bugs have slowly been developing resistance mechanisms and have become resistant to most, if not all, insecticides on the market. On average, insecticides labeled for bed bug control can take over 150 hours to kill a bed bug, compared to seconds or minutes in previous years. An Ohio State study, “Transcriptomics of the Bed Bug,” published January 2011 in the journal PLoS One confirms bed bug resistance to pyrethroid insecticides and highlights the need to adopt non-chemical methods for controlling bed bugs and other insect pests.
Pyrethroids, some of the most common chemicals used in attempts to treat bed bug infestations, are a class of pesticides that are synthetic versions of pyrethrin, a natural insecticide found in certain species of chrysanthemum. They were initially introduced on the market as ”˜safer’ alternatives to the heavily regulated and highly toxic organophosphates such as chlorpyrifos and diazinon, which were banned for residential use in 2001 and 2004, respectively. Despite the fact that there are plenty of effective pest control methods that are not nearly as toxic, pyrethroids are now some of the most popular household pesticides. They are cause for concern to consumers because of their link to serious chronic health problems. Synthetic pyrethroids are suspected endocrine disruptors, and have been found lingering in the dust at daycare centers.
Not only are chemical treatments often more harmful than bed bugs, they are also not actually necessary, as these pests can be effectively controlled with non-toxic approaches. An integrated pest management (IPM) approach, which includes methods such as vacuuming, steaming, and exposing the bugs to high heat can control an infestation without dangerous side effects. This approach, as well as taking steps such as sealing cracks and crevices, reducing clutter and encasing mattresses can also help to prevent an infestation in the first place. Beyond Pesticides has put together a bed bug web page which includes a detailed fact sheet discussing bed bugs, the problems with pesticide treatments, and alternative control methods.
The September CDC study focuses solely on acute poisoning incidents. Pesticides, including those used for bed bug control, are linked to chronic health problems as well, which would not be captured by this type of study. For more information on studies highlighting chronic disease and pesticide use, see our Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database.
For more information on bed bugs and least-toxic control methods, see our factsheet, “Got Bed Bugs, Don’t Panic,” on our Bed Bug program page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.