War on bedbugs is a patchwork affair

Many agencies, private groups join to seek solutions

This dog is trained to sniff out bedbugs, which were virtually eradicated by the 1950s. But with the banning of DDT, the bugs have developed resistance to the chemicals that replaced it. This dog is trained to sniff out bedbugs, which were virtually eradicated by the 1950s. But with the banning of DDT, the bugs have developed resistance to the chemicals that replaced it. (Ruby Washington/New York Times)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post / January 2, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

WASHINGTON — In keeping with the best of government traditions, the Federal Bed Bug Work Group is hosting its second national summit Feb. 1-2 in Washington to brainstorm about solutions to the resurgence of the tiny bloodsuckers that have made such an itch-inducing comeback in recent years.

The summit will be open to the public, officials said, and will focus on ways the federal government and others can work together to manage and control the pests, which have been showing up in apartment buildings, college dorms, luxury hotels, movie theaters, Manhattan retail stores, and office buildings, according to officials and pest management companies.

Several federal agencies participate in the Federal Bed Bug Work Group: the Environmental Protection Agency; the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, Defense and Commerce; the National Institutes of Health; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The EPA organized the first federal bedbug summit last year. February’s meeting is expected to feature updates from federal, state, and local governments, the research community, and the housing and pest-management industries, EPA officials said.

The National Pest Management Association, based in Fairfax, Va., will host what it has named the National Bed Bug Forum in Denver on Jan. 5-7, to demonstrate new pest-control technologies.

And the District of Columbia’s health department will host its second bedbug summit Jan. 20 for residents and organizations interested in prevention and eradication.

Industry officials say bedbugs are a difficult pest to treat.

Common household pests for centuries, bedbugs were virtually eradicated in the 1940s and ’50s by widespread use of DDT. The insecticide was banned in the 1970s, and the bugs developed resistance to chemicals that replaced it.

Unlike other household pests such as ants, termites, and cockroaches, bedbugs can live for months without eating, hidden deep in mattress seams, box springs, and baseboard crevices, behind wallpaper, and in clutter around beds.

Their rise is attributed to increased domestic and international travel, lack of knowledge about preventing infestations, and increased resistance to pesticides. Bedbugs hitch rides easily from person to person, so they are showing up in all sorts of places, including hotel rooms and nursing homes.

The CDC is partnering with experts in medicine, epidemiology, entomology, and environmental toxicology to better understand the bedbug resurgence and the methods needed for control.

The EPA is working with industry experts and researchers to identify new compounds (or new uses for existing compounds) to control bedbugs. At the Agriculture Department’s Invasive Insect Biocontrol and Behavior Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., for example, scientists are testing chemicals used to treat agricultural pests to determine whether those could be used against bedbugs.

But research on bedbugs has been very limited in the past several decades, and some researchers say they fear that the federal bureaucracy can’t move fast enough to address the growing infestations. Studies on the public health effects of the bugs have not received much support because even though bedbugs’ bites can provoke allergic reactions, they are not known to spread disease — unlike ticks and mosquitoes.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has no active projects studying bedbugs, officials said.

Regulations governing the mission of each federal agency also tend to limit what the government can do and how fast it can act. “Their hands are pretty well tied,’’ said Phil Koehler, a University of Miami entomologist. “There’s only so much they can do.’’

Meanwhile, bedbugs have spread well beyond beds and residential areas.

“One of the most alarming trends we’ve seen recently is the beginning of what seems like major problems in office buildings,’’ said Wayne White, an entomologist and director of technical services at American Pest, based in Takoma Park, Md. “They’re no longer associated with places where we sleep.’’

Officials say people can prevent bedbugs by sealing cracks and crevices, washing and drying clothing and bed sheets at high temperatures, and vacuuming rugs and upholstered furniture thoroughly and frequently (and immediately disposing of the bag outside in a sealed trash bag). They also caution against using pesticides that do not have bedbugs listed on the label.