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Is that right? Beware bed bug remedies

(Orkin Inc.)

If you're using pesticides meant for outdoor use to get rid of bed bugs in your home, the Environmental Protection Agency wants you to stop.

Bed bugs are apparently taking over the nation, enabled in part by the EPA's 1972 ban of DDT, a powerful pesticide that did a great job of eradicating bed bugs -- but that's also been deemed a carcinogenic.

Without DDT to deter them, bed bugs have taken up residence everywhere, from New York City hotels -- and the Empire State Building -- to, well, just about everywhere in Ohio. Terminix last week released its list of the 15 most-bed-bug-infested cities in the U.S.: Washington, D.C., came in ninth.

The little biting bugs don't appear to transmit disease, but their bites can itch and sting, and they make whatever room or building they occupy uninhabitable to humans. They're not very discriminating: They infest the homes of rich and poor alike, and contrary to common belief, they're not attracted to dirt or filth. (Remember the "30 Rock" episode when Jack Donaghy had bed bugs?)

Apparently many people across the nation are so bent on ridding themselves of bed bugs that they're using chemicals meant to keep golf courses insect free inside their homes, even on their mattresses (bed bugs' favorite hangout). But using such chemicals can be hazardous to your health, especially the highly flammable ones.

You can try treating bed bugs on your own -- but you're likely to fail. If your home is infested, you might as well bite the bullet early on and hire a professional, reputable pest-control service such as Terminix or Orkin -- and then hope for the best.

Officials in Ohio have asked the EPA to reconsider its ban on the indoor use of the propoxur, a neurotoxic pesticide that is effective against bed bugs. But that chemical's considered toxic to humans as well, and experts fear that folks will spray it on mattresses and in areas where children and pets play. They also caution that bed bugs may develop resistance to the chemical if it's overused.

Here's tons of information about bed bugs and how to (try to) control them. And, just for fun, here's a story I wrote about them a few years back.

Have you contended with bed bugs? Please share your tales of woe -- and let us know how you beat 'em.

Update, Sept. 8: For more information on how the federal government is combating bed bugs, read "Finding new weapons to kill bedbugs".

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  September 3, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Is That Right?  
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I got them about 2 years ago from an apartment I lived in. I ended up moving them to another apartment and it was 6 months before I figured out that I had them--I found a dead one when changing the sheets one day. (I'm one of those few people who are not particularly allergic to their bites.) The tell-tale sign is drops of blood and their execrement (looks like ink spots) on the bedsheets, walls, lamps, etc.
I was able to fully get rid of them because I called a reputable exterminator and followed their instructions to the letter. I also washed/dry cleaned/ran through the dryer all of my clothes and things that were in the bedroom. I tossed my boxspring and a mile of clutter. I put an anti-bedbug cover on the mattress after it had been treated by the exterminator.
My guiding principles would be to think of infection control practices, and not to waste your time and efforts with home remedies-- they don't work and are likely to make things worse by scattering the bugs and giving you false hope. The whole experience was unpleasant but it will be funny one day (maybe)...

Posted by: padnactap92 | September 3, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

My then-fiance (now husband) had bed bugs in his apartment, about two years ago. His landlord came and sprayed with something and it seemed to kill them, but then six months later they were back... a couple weeks before we were supposed to move to a new apartment.

After much panicking about bringing the nasty little buggers with us, and LOTS of internet research, I found seveal sources saying that Vikane gas (same thing they use to treat homes for termites) is the only thing that kills bed bugs at all life stages (including eggs, larvae, nymphs, and adults). I also found a pest control company in our area (shoutout to Connor's Pest Control!) that does container fumigation.

So every single item of furniture, stuff and/or clothing that he wanted to keep was boxed up, delivered to the container, and gassed. The gas can permeate inside cardboard boxes, books, etc... anything not sealed in plastic gets well-fumigated. They fumigated the stuff for about 24 hours, then aired it out, and the Vikane gas leaves no odor and no trace resuidue behind. The total cost was $400 (though from what I’ve read, NYC-area fumigators charge $1200 and up).

We’ve been in our new place for a year and a half and have no signs of bugs, but we’re both still completely paranoid. Every fleck of lint or fuzz elicits a close-up inspection.

I don’t think I’ll ever sleep comfortably in a hotel bed again. I inspect friends’ guest beds and hotel beds before I sleep in them.

So really, that's my advice to apartment-dwellers who get infested with bedbugs... move, and gas all your stuff. If you own your home, and it's a single-family home, you can have your home tented and gassed (like they do for termites), but I don't know how much that costs, and that's not feasible for condos or townhouses.

Posted by: DivineMsK | September 3, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Bed bug infestations are terrible, but they do not transmit disease. They can be controlled without toxic pesticides through a comprehensive strategy that incorporates monitoring, sanitation, sealing, heat treatments and more. Learn more at

Posted by: jkepner | September 3, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Always be sure to take your suitcase straight to the laundry room after any trip and wash everything in hot water. Put the dryer on a hot setting too. My in-laws have bed bugs, but we've done this after every trip and have stayed (knock on wood) bedbug free. Awful, awful creatures.

Posted by: pswift00 | September 3, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Did you know that bed bug infestations are NOT covered by ANY property insurance; Renters, Homeowners, etc. The cost of treating bed bugs and the resulting loss of furnishings, clothing, rugs, etc., plus hotel time is akin to a fire. Renters, who are much more at risk and have much higher incidents of bed bugs, are generally least able to properly afford extermination and replacement of item, thus, their apartments are not properly cleaned thus causing more infestations throughout the properties.

I beg each and every reader here to contact your state senate rep and state delegate, asking them to pressure the State Bureau of Insurance to require Insurers practicing in the state to offer a bed bug supplemental for renters as well as homeowners.

Also, contact your state Bureau of Insurance-in Virginia, its Alfred Gross-and ask for pressure on the Insurance Companies.

Lastly, call your insurer and ask the Customer Service Rep. for the best most direct address to MAIL (not email) a note ask them to consider adding a bed bug supplemental.

I have contacted all the local and national press as well-hopefully, an outlet will pick up the story.

I would be panicked and horrified if I found bed bugs in my 6 month old's crib and on my baby, and knowing that as a low income renter, I do not have the money to replace carpets and shades; clothes and furnishings.

Posted by: lee3333 | September 3, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Huget, I love your column, but you've inadvertently repeated a right-wing talking point falsehood: that the current bedbug invasion is due to the January 1973 DDT ban.

The fact is, bedbugs developed DDT resistance before it was banned. Recent studies show that bedbugs are still largely resistant to DDT.

Ask yourself why, if DDT was the only thing keeping bedbugs in check, the huge spike in bedbug infestations did not occur in the 1970s, or the 1980s, or the 1990s?

No, in fact, the leading theory is that bedbugs have spiked because of a market-driven change in roach control techniques: in the mid 1990s, pest control companies adopted bait-based roach-control poisons, rather than spray-based protocols. The bait worked much better than sprays to control roaches. However, it seems that the roach spray was keeping bedbugs under control, too. The government didn't ban these pesticides: companies voluntarily started using bait because it worked so much better.

DDT has nothing to do with it.

Posted by: kcx7 | September 3, 2010 8:45 PM | Report abuse

@kcx7--Can you provide more information on your theory? I've read that roach sprays do not kill bedbugs.

I fear the things. We see an occasional roach in our home due to filthy next-door neighbors. (Yes, I've asked them to clean up their house, but they always return to their unsanitary habits.) If those neighbors get bedbugs, we're doomed.

Posted by: 1950snoopy | September 3, 2010 9:24 PM | Report abuse

@snoopy: I'd mention a WaPo link if there were a good, free, science-based bedbug story in their archives, but regrettably there isn't. So I recommend the August 31st NYT article entitled "Bedbugs Crawl, They Bite, They Baffle Scientists" (simply Google the title) for a good discussion on the possible causes of the bedbug resurgence.

Posted by: kcx7 | September 3, 2010 10:00 PM | Report abuse

"...they're using chemicals meant to keep golf courses insect free inside their homes..."

I'd love to have a golf course inside my home.

Posted by: Voter4Integrity | September 4, 2010 12:43 AM | Report abuse

Come the revolution, and you'll wish you had bedbugs around -- they make great crunchy toppings for lawn weed salads...

Posted by: Apostrophe | September 4, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

After a bedbug scare in my apartment building, where the infestation was very near my apartment, I went back to using a basic bug barrier spray along the baseboards. It doesn't kill the bedbugs, but they don't like it and hesitate to come near or cross it. That might be how bedbugs were being kept in check when it was common to use barrier sprays.

Posted by: kathryn_dc | September 4, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

I got them [I think] from a hotel in NYC in June 2009. It wasn't a GREAT hotel, but it was certainly OK and part of a major chain. This was before the hue and cry about bedbugs - for quite some time I didn't have any idea what I had, other than a LOT of itchy bites (more than 60, count 'em 60! at one point). I thought maybe mosquitoes? (I did hang around outside a lot and it was summer). Fleas? (I have 2 indoor cats - but perhaps they'd got a flea somewhere?) Maybe it was scabies, even? I went to a Minute Clinic and they had no idea, either. I'm going to say it was about 2 months and much Internet research before I figured out what was going on - at first bedbugs aren't all that obvious - it takes a bit before they get firmly established. When I finally tumbled to it, it was AWFUL. After weeks of investigation and mitigation measures, me and them reached a detente where I used sticky tape to keep them in their place and abandoned the bedroom to them altogether. Ultimately, I had the apartment treated 2x and threw out everything I owned (literally almost EVERYTHING - bedframe, headboard, box springs, mattress, chest of drawers, all rugs, most of my clothes, couch, loveseat, coffee table and multiple end tables) when I moved to a new place. Fortunately for me, nothing I owned was valuable or sentimental so it was not that big a deal. I moved to my new place with some plastic Wal-Mart chairs, what was left of my clothes (washed in hot water, dried to death, and also kept in plastic bags in my car during the summer for weeks where the temp routinely gets above 140F as they say about how hot cars can get in the sun), some metal and plastic kitchen stuff and two bookcases my Dad made for me that I inspected carefully and were never near the bedroom. That was it. There are no bedbugs in my new place. Thank goodness!

Posted by: indy474 | September 4, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

I am still counting on a healthy spider population to keep my home bed-bug free.
Can anybody else suggest natural remedies?

Posted by: | September 4, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Bed bugs are easy to get rid of, you just need to know which products to use. I followed a quick and easy extermination guide that did the job for me. I was happy because my daughter was getting bit while sleeping in our den down stairs. I thought I needed to throw the sectional out, but after seeing that article i'm glad I didn't.

Posted by: BrianG1 | September 5, 2010 4:00 AM | Report abuse

Lee3333: At least in Howard County, Maryland (and I'm pretty sure this is the case in Virginia as well, but you'd have to check the VA Landlord-Tenant Act), a bedbug infestation in a rental unit is by law the landlord's responsibility, not the renter's, according to the local code.

Nobody should have to throw out anything due to a bedbug infestation, not even a mattress. Bedbugs hide in floorboards & wall crevices as well as mattresses, upholstery, etc. So if you throw out your mattress and buy a new one, pretty soon it will be infested too. Far better to spray the mattress and encase it in a bedbug-proof cover.

Posted by: DivineMsK | September 5, 2010 11:19 PM | Report abuse

Two weeks ago I woke up with bed bug bites - about 30 on my legs and torso. I called a pest company and 3 days later had my bedroom, closet and bath treated. I've spent over $300 on mattress and pillow covers for all the beds in the house. I bought DE powder and sprinkled that along the base boards. I packed all my clothes in large zip lock bags and put them out in the sun to bake - as well as in the dryer. I've had no new bites so I am cautiously optimistic they've been exterminated. Don't know how I got them (live in a single family house). But I'm hyper vigilent now of everything that comes into the house.

Posted by: notallbad | September 6, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Key actions to keeping the bed bugs away: look for the signs of bed bugs, casings, blood specks and the bugs themselves; let your property management company know right a way and/or call a good pest management company right a way; prepare your belongings as instructed by the pest control company; buy diatomaceous earth to use after the pest control treatment. Diatomaceous earth kills many types of insects and will help prevent infestations (it takes a few days to kill the bed bugs but a good maintenance tool). Following these steps I have had great success.

Posted by: stacyh629 | September 6, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

I live in a single-family house and got bedbugs a year ago from a weekend retreat. However, my doctors didn't recognize them for 3 months, leaving me in abject misery and thinking that I had suddenly developed allergies to the air.

After we found out, I slept on the couch and in the basement for a month. The infestation was extremely severe, leaving me with literally hundreds of bites and making kids at school ask, "What happened to your face?" After some research and an ineffective treatment with Dichotomous Earth, we decided that the only way to kill them was to heat my room. We didn't want to use chemicals because I was 15 at the time and the bugs were in my bedroom, and most chemicals are not 100% effective, especially if the insects are in your walls.Chemicals won't penetrate furniture--heat has to do it. We knew that throwing things away wouldn't be effective because they had been in the house for over three months.

Temperatures above 114F will kill bedbugs. We bought a propane heater and some ductwork and everyone spent a summer day outside. We took apart my bedframe and spread out all of my belongings. Since we live in a split-level, we sealed off and heated the entire upper level. Heat is the only really, truly effective way to kill them. It was so nasty finding the dead bugs in my room afterwards, but better then having live ones drinking my blood.

Putting clothing, shoes, and bedding in the dryer on high heat is also effective--so is putting items in black plastic bags and leaving them in a car on a sunny day. We got a bedbug-sniffing dog to come through the house to verify they were all dead. Don't trust a person. Get a dog to check.

I'm still scared to sleep in hotels. I check under the mattresses. Every time I get a mosquito bite, I freak out until I can determine that it's not from bedbugs. The chemicals didn't do squat--it has to be heat. I don't know if any agencies in the area will do this, but that's how my family handled it. We've been bedbug-free for a year, and I hope I never meet one of the disgusting creatures ever again.

Posted by: whatif2223 | September 7, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse

Heat is absolutely not "the only really, truly effective way" to kill bedbugs (though I agree with you that most of the over-the-counter chemical sprays don't do squat).

As I mentioned, Vikane gas kills eggs, larvae, nymphs and adult bedbugs. And it permeates walls, upholstery, boxes, books, electronics, computers, TVs, baseboards, etc. Vikane gas also leaves no toxic residue or odor, and won't damage sensitive electronics like heat will.

I'm glad the heat treatment worked for you, but there are other methods that work.

Posted by: DivineMsK | September 8, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Discovering a minor bedbug nest in an old briefcase in the wee hours one night, and not wanting to deal with it until the morning, I may have stumbled upon a pretty good way to kill the critters.

I put the briefcase in a large plastic garbage bag, and tossed in, sloppily, about a shot (an ounce or two) of ordinary rubbing alcohol. I tie-sealed the bag and went to sleep.

Next morning, all the bedbugs -- close to 100 -- were dead.

I've since used this method -- sealing bedding and other materials suspected of being infested into a plastic bag, along with about a shot of rubbing alcohol -- three times. All three times, I found dead bedbugs in the bottom of the bag.

Posted by: ERoeder | September 8, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

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