Bed bug. Photo: Dr. Harold Harlan, AFPMB Image Database
Four years ago, when there were just murmurs of bed bugs rather than today’s full-blown public awareness campaigns against them, Jeannie Mills started getting bites. At first she figured they were from mosquitoes because it was summertime. “But then I had left a sweatshirt on my bed and gone out of town for a couple days,” she recalls. “When I came back, I found two little tick-like bugs sitting on my sweatshirt, and that's when I connected the dots.”
Mills, an environmental journalist, was mortified. “I think there’s a misconception that people who get bedbugs are dirty or leave food out in their apartment,” she says. “In reality, it's got nothing to do with being dirty or clean. But it's also embarrassing because you don’t want friends or family knowing that you've got an army of blood-thirsty bugs lurking in your home.”
Well versed in green living, Mills was reluctant to use a chemical solution, but her landlord called an exterminator. “There were a lot, and I mean a lot of chemicals involved, which still scares me to this day. Sometimes I still consider ditching the furniture that was exposed to those insecticides, and this is four years later,” she says.
The insecticides worked, though Mills ended up moving out of the apartment soon after. “If I had to do it all again, I probably would’ve just set fire to the building with all my things in it and just moved on with my life,” she says, half-kidding.
Others have tried non-chemical bed bug removal, only to resort to pesticides in the end. One 30-something New Yorker who also fell victim to bed bugs said her last-ditch chemical assault led her to “fall from environmental grace.”
So what is the most eco-friendly to get rid of bed bugs? In a joint statement, the CDC and EPA said: “Although bed bugs may sometimes be controlled by non-chemical means alone, this approach is often very difficult, potentially less effective, and usually more resource intensive.”
Because bed bugs have developed resistance to many chemical pesticides currently used, the agencies stress the importance of integrated pest management—including heat-treating clothing and furniture, sealing cracks and crevices, and using non-chemical pesticides such as diatomaceous earth, and judicious pesticide use.
The key to insecticides is using them properly, says Richard Pollack, a Harvard University entomologist. “With most products used against bed bugs, even a little bit of misuse around home is not likely pose measurable risk to residents or the environment.” Problems arise when people “have a knee-jerk reaction, go to the hardware store or nursery, buy whatever pesticide and spray immediately and heavily before they know who the enemy is.”
Bites alone aren’t enough to indicate the location of an infestation—it can take up to 14 days for bed bug bite marks to develop, according to the CDC. You have to find the critters themselves, which are small, flat, reddish-brown, wingless, and range from 1 to 7 millimeters long.
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Turns out, though, it’s tough to identify a bed bug. Pollack runs Identify US, a company that identifies pests, including bed bugs, head lice, and ticks. Pollack says that until the mid-90s, he used to receive perhaps one inquiry a year about bed bugs. “Then it went from a steady stream, to a flood of calls and emails and walk-ins by everyone from homeowners to real estate managers to pest control folks.”
Of all the presumed bed-bug specimens that he inspects every day—mailed to Identify US in plastic bags, bottles, or envelopes, or emailed digital images—“fewer than half are bed bugs,” he says. They range from bat bugs and bird bugs to cockroaches and spider beetles, which can require different removal methods.
For instance, the presence of bat bugs (which Pollack says he has to identify under a microscope to make sure it’s not a bed bug) suggests that a homeowner has bats, perhaps in the attic. That situation requires a “vastly different” removal approach, including humanely moving the bats and treating the attic with pesticides—not heat-treating clothing, pulling apart beds and other furniture, and applying pesticides in living areas, as is done with bed bug treatment.
Pollack says he tries to get people answers as quickly as possible so they can employ the right approach, which cuts down on both unnecessary pesticide use and saves money. “Even when it’s bad news, when the specimen or image they sent is a bed bug, in general there’s a certain relief that’s detectable. At least they know who their enemy is.”
In New York City, bed-bug sniffing dogs are also becoming an increasingly popular tool for identifying infestations.
If it is indeed a bed bug infestation, Pollack recommends hiring a professional exterminator. “I think it’s a mistake for vast majority of people to take matters into heir own hands. In most cases, they’ll fail miserably.”
He suggests getting quotes from multiple companies, and requesting written costs and written lists of products they’re going to apply (that way, if you switch to another company, you have documentation of what was done).
Finally, says Pollack, “Don’t expect miracles overnight. You’re much more likely to achieve success more quickly in a single-family house than in an apt building.”
And, he adds, while bed bugs are irritating, at least they don’t pass diseases along to humans, like mosquitoes. “At this point, there is zero evidence that bed bugs transmit anything to people—except hysteria.”
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