A resurgence of bedbugs across the U.S. has homeowners and apartment dwellers taking desperate measures to eradicate the tenacious bloodsuckers. Some folks are relying on dangerous outdoor pesticides and fly-by-night exterminators. The problem has gotten so bad that the Environmental Protection Agency has warned against the indoor use of chemicals meant for the outside. The agency also warned of an increase in pest control companies and others making “unrealistic promises of effectiveness or low cost.”
Bedbugs, infesting U.S. households on a scale unseen in more than a half-century, have become largely resistant to common pesticides. As a result, some homeowners and exterminators are turning to more hazardous chemicals that can harm the central nervous system, irritate the skin and eyes or even cause cancer. A number of states are asking the EPA for an emergency exemption which will allow the indoor use of the pesticide Propoxur. EPA rejected the request in June and has pledged to find new, potent chemicals to kill bedbugs, which can cause itchy, red bites that can become infected if scratched.
Bedbugs, a common household pest for centuries, all but vanished in the 1940s and ’50s with the widespread use of DDT. But DDT was banned in 1972 as too toxic to wildlife, especially birds. Since then, the bugs have developed resistance to chemicals that replaced DDT. Also, exterminators have fewer weapons in their arsenal than they did just a few years ago because of a 1996 law that requires older pesticides to be re-evaluated based on more stringent health standards. The re-evaluations led to the restrictions on propoxur and other pesticides.
Though propoxur is still used in pet collars, it is banned for use in homes because of the risk of nausea, dizziness and blurred vision in children. Steven Bradbury, director of the EPA’s pesticide program, said the problem is that children crawl on the floor and put their fingers in their mouths. Critics in the pest control industry say that the federal government is overreacting and that professional applicators can work with families to prevent children from being exposed to harmful levels of the chemical, which is more commonly used outside against roaches and crickets.
Experts say it is going to take a comprehensive public health campaign — public service announcements, travel tips and perhaps even taxpayer-funded extermination programs for public housing — to reduce the bedbug problem. Folks can get bedbugs by visiting infested homes or hotels, where the vermin hide in mattresses, pillows and curtains. The bugs are stealth hitchhikers that climb onto bags, clothing and luggage.
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