By Marcia Anderson
As a former EPA Regional bed bug consultant, I still occasionally receive calls to assist people with bed bug related issues. A few months ago, I answered several calls and emails from Mattie, a distraught mom who not only had a bed bug infestation, but had received questionable advice about bed bug control that affected her son’s health. Here is her story.
Mattie discovered she had a bed bug problem when her nine year old grandson went back home with his parents with bumps and swollen arms and legs. His parents took him to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with having an allergic reaction to bites from some bugs. Mattie’s son, Peter, was also bitten and showed allergic symptoms. Peter suffers from chronic respiratory issues.
They soon discovered that the bites were likely from bed bugs that they found when looking around the apartment. The bed bugs were seen coming out of a crevice in the wall above Peter’s bed. That wall, unknown to Mattie’s family at the time, is adjacent to another apartment that was recently found to have bed bugs.
The landlord instructed Mattie to wash EVERYTHING and gave her just five days to clean out her entire apartment. “We had to wash over 35 loads of clothing, bedding and everything else that had fabric. Peter and I were exhausted,” Mattie wrote in one of her emails.
In the meantime, the landlord arranged for a well-known pest control service to treat the apartment. Mattie reminded the landlord about Peter’s and her health concerns. The landlord told her that they could return to the apartment after it was sprayed and not to worry – the pest control company was professional and would not apply anything that wasn’t safe. The landlord also informed her that the pest control company said there was a severe care of bed bugs in Peter’s room but that no other rooms were infested. Peter’s mattress and bed would need to be thrown out.
Mattie and Peter were given a temporary hotel stay by a local aid agency because of their asthma. She found that four different pesticides had been applied in the apartment and that the pest control company would be returning in five days to check and re-spray.
Mattie continued, “When Peter and I returned to the apartment after two days, we became ill. I could smell the spray. My son began to have tightness in his chest, and so did I. It was apparent that even with the windows open and the ceiling fan blowing that it was going to be impossible to stay in that apartment.” Mattie was concerned about the effect of these pesticides on their respiratory systems, and both had to have breathing treatments when they arrived at the respite house for the rest of the week.
I responded to Mattie: “I was surprised that the pest control company used all of those pesticides. There are other methods of treating bed bugs, such as radiant heat, steam and freezing that do not require the use of pesticides. These methods can easily be followed-up by the use of bed bug barriers and low toxicity pesticides placed strategically in walls and other areas that would not exacerbate your families’ medical conditions.
You do not need to throw out any mattresses, box springs or beds. Instead, purchase encasements for each. The encasements will trap any bed bugs and they will die. If this was a severe infestation, as the landlord reported, some of the bugs would have spread into surrounding rooms, so precautions should be taken throughout the apartment. Until your bed bug problem is gone, use clear plastic boxes to store your clothes and other items that you use on a regular basis. Bed bugs will have a difficult time climbing up the slick plastic sides of the boxes, eliminating yet another hiding place.
As you sleep, bed bugs will try to climb onto the bed for a blood meal. So, move your bed a few inches away from the wall and ensure no bedding is touching the floor. Then, place bed bug interceptors, available on the Internet, under the bed legs and under the legs of all other plush furniture in your apartment.
Be aware that in most cases, pesticides alone will not eliminate bed bugs. Effective bed bug control requires a diverse set of practices called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM is an environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on knowledge of the pest and a combination of common sense practices, such as inspection, monitoring, reducing clutter, the use of physical barriers, and the judicious and careful use of pesticides, if needed.
An astute pest management professional would have used a less toxic approach to rid you of the bed bugs. I am sorry that you had such an awful experience and hope that others reading this article will learn from your painful lesson.”
Be a strong advocate for your family’s health and for an IPM approach. Find out the exact course of action that is planned for your dwelling BEFORE they treat. Insist on exploring preventative and non-pesticidal options first. For more information on bed bugs and their control go to: http://www.epa.gov/bedbugs.
About the Author: Marcia is with EPA’s Center of Expertise for School IPM in Dallas, Texas. She holds a PhD in Environmental Management from Montclair State University along with degrees in Biology, Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture, and Instruction and Curriculum. Marcia was formerly with the EPA Region 2 Pesticides Program and has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology, and Oceanography at several universities.