The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held its first ever bedbug conference in April, in the face of the nation’s largest outbreak of the insects since World War II.
Bedbugs are bloodsucking insects that live in the folds of sheets, mattresses and upholstered furniture such as couches. They remain concealed and sleep during the day, emerging to feed only at night. While the insects do not transmit any diseases, their bites may swell and itch fiercely, much like mosquito bites. Because they feed exclusively on blood, they cannot be eliminated with baited traps like roaches or ants can.
Bedbug extermination is expensive — between $400 and $900 — and of limited effectiveness, in part due to the animals’ ability to hide in tiny crevices. Often, complete extermination requires disposal of any infested furniture. This means that the poor, who cannot afford such measures, are hardest hit by outbreaks.
“I can’t tell you how many people have spent the night in their bathtubs because they are so freaked out by bedbugs,” said bedbug expert Dini Miller of Virginia Tech. “I get these people over the phone that have lost their marbles.”
Many of the insecticides that were formerly most effective at eradicating bedbugs have since been banned by the EPA due to their dangerous effects on human health and the environment. Even these banned chemicals are often infrequent nowadays, however, as their widespread use in other countries has caused bedbugs to evolve resistance to them.
The EPA is currently investigating safe methods of bedbug elimination.
“One of our roles would be to learn of new products or safer products,” said Lois Rossi of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs. “What we are concerned about is that if people take things into their own hands and start using pesticides on their mattresses that aren’t really registered for that, that’s a problem.”
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