Smarter Living: Family Health
Battling Bed Bugs
A Q&A With Tom Green, Founder of the IPM Institute of North America
photo: Fairfax County, Virginia
Bed bugs are crawling into even the cleanest houses, apartment buildings, and hotels across the country and the world. Fear of getting them may leave you grasping for the deadliest pesticides known to the Internet. But Tom Green says there's no need to panic. An expert in integrated pest management (or IPM), which seeks to reduce unneeded pesticide use, Green says the best solution is to keep calm and carry on. There are safe options to keep the bed bugs from biting.
Bed bugs have been painted as an implacable pest for which the usual chemical remedies, such as Raid, don't work. How accurate is this picture?
First of all, although dealing with bed bugs can be anxiety-provoking and expensive, they don't carry disease -- that's an important point to make. Mosquitoes are a more important public health threat than bed bugs, but they haven't caused this kind of hysteria because we're familiar with how to treat them. We all know what mosquitoes look like and how to deal with them, and we just need to get to that point with bed bugs. In agriculture new pests are introduced on an unfortunately regular basis, so this is certainly something that entomologists are used to dealing with.
Some of the chemical measures that used to work for bed bugs don't work as well anymore because the bugs have built up a resistance. But there are still a lot of effective options. I don't believe there's a reason to bring back any of the more toxic products that the EPA has eliminated for use within residential structures. We have enough options already.
How quickly can bed bugs move from one apartment to the next, and what should city dwellers look for to avoid an infestation?
Apartment dwellers should contact their landlords immediately if they have a problem. A paper published by Rutgers entomologist Changlu Wang shows that whenever bed bugs infest an apartment, there's a 50 percent chance that the adjoining apartment will also be infested. Bed bugs practice traumatic insemination -- the male punctures the female's abdomen because there's no orifice there, and some of the females die. So once a female has mated, they have a big incentive to avoid males and not get speared again. As a result, they move quickly and spread.
Bed bugs only feed on human blood; their bite is usually painless, may leave no mark and happens at night when you're asleep, so if you're not aware of the other signs, you may not realize you're infested. Knowing what they look like so that you recognize them is very important. When bed bugs feed, a high percentage of the time they'll also excrete dark, blood-colored, fecal spots. Look for those on sheets and mattresses. Also, the majority of bed bugs will be pretty close to the bed. So you can inspect behind the headboard and look along the seams in the sheets and mattress wherever you have a stitch line. It's a good idea for people just to check these things when they're changing the sheets. That way you don't end up with a large infestation before you realize you've got a problem.
New York has produced a really good guide to bed bugs (PDF), and tenants in the city can contact 311 if the landlord doesn't respond to complaints about pests.
If you do have a problem, how do you get rid of them?
Because they hide in crevices and other hard-to-reach places, it's best to hire a certified IPM professional, who will use a number of techniques to remove the immediate problem and reduce the likelihood of infestation. Heat treatment, for example, can be very effective, followed up by sealing points of entry from adjacent apartments.
You can start, however, by vacuuming up those bed bugs revealed by your inspection -- seal the vacuum bag in a plastic bag and dispose when done. Check the vacuum hose to make sure it's clear and that there are no bed bugs trapped on clumps of dust that they may crawl away from when the vacuum is turned off.
Once you've vacuumed the mattress, wrapping it in a bug-proof mattress encasement is really a great idea: They have minimal seams, so they prevent bed bugs from gathering, and have tight-sealing zippers, which bed bugs can't get in and out of. As result, your bed can't be re-infested and any remaining eggs inside won't pose a threat since the bed bugs will be trapped and die after hatching. So there's no need to spray the mattress if you're going to use the encasement.
As soft-bodied insects, bed bugs aren't that hard to kill. If you disturb the wax on their bodies, they dry out pretty quickly and die. A number of effective pesticides use this approach. For example, some plant oil-based products dissolve the waxy cuticle. They act quickly but you have to get it on the bed bug while it's wet. There are other chemical products, like the pyrethroids, that will work when they're dry.
Diatomaceous earth is the active ingredient in several pesticides often available at hardware stores that abrades the waxy cuticle on bed bugs and cause them to die. It's not quick-acting and may take up to ten days, but it can be placed in wall voids -- away from people and animals -- where it will work for a long time against bed bugs.
What treatments should be avoided?
Foggers-- such as "bug bombs" -- are not effective against bed bugs and create a huge potential for exposing your family to toxic pesticides. And they can cause explosions and fire if you don't follow the instructions properly -- including turning off pilot lights. Bombing doesn't work -- the pesticide does not reach where many of the bugs are hiding.
Your exterminator may arrive with a canister of liquid pesticide and a spray wand to squirt the pesticide on the surfaces of baseboards, tiles and wherever bugs congregate. That's also not as effective a treatment for bed bugs and leaves a residue on surfaces that people may come into contact with, especially kids who tend crawl around and put their fingers in their mouths.
A better option is to apply the pesticide directly into the cracks and crevices where bed bugs hang out, using a spray can with a straw or dust applicator that minimizes the amount of pesticide left on an exposed surface. Again, certified IPM professionals will have the right products, tools and equipment to make any applications properly.
If you're going to use a pesticide, the ideal is limiting applications to wall voids and cracks and crevices, while the next worse for creating potential for human exposure to the pesticide is using the wand to spray surfaces and the absolute "No" is the fogger.
If you want someone to get rid of the beg bugs without filling your home with chemicals, what kind of certifications can you ask to see?
Certification requirements for commercial pesticide applicators vary from state to state, and some of them are pretty minimal. New York has some of the most rigorous, but it's still not what it could be in terms of requiring IPM. There are some companies that do a really good job in training their technicians, and there are others whose focus is on applying product rather than trying to implement long-term strategies like mattress encasement and sealing entry points.
Of course, I recommend Green Shield, which is run by the non-profit IPM Institute of North America and certifies environmentally preferable control companies. It's important that before certification, the company's performance is actually verified so we visit each company on-site as well as accompany technicians to accounts to ensure compliance with required practices.
For more advice, see the University of California's page on hiring a pest control company.
Can you get rid of bed bugs on your own without paying an exterminator?
Unfortunately, it's very very tough to manage a bed bug problem on your own, but there are guides for best practices, such as the New York City pamphlet. Vacuuming is a really good strategy to reduce their numbers by removing the insects and eggs from these places where they congregate. You really have to do a very good job of inspecting the room. You might have a congregation of bed bugs in the smoke detector, in electrical outlets, behind a picture on the wall, or in the gaps where the headboard rails meet the frame. The New York City brochure shows many of these places. You have to move things around and create a clean area that you've vacuumed and/or heated effectively so that you're not just removing bed bugs then bringing them back into the area.
Washing items in hot water and drying in a dryer is an effective strategy for clothing and bedding. Applying steam to bed bugs and eggs can kill them quickly but you need to ensure the steam contacts all of the locations bed bugs are hiding, avoid sensitive surfaces such as some furniture finishes that might be damaged by the steam. Many residential-use steamers do not generate sufficient heat. Heating up the air in a room will kill bed bugs quickly, but for the treatment to be effective, you have to get the spot where the bed bugs are hiding up to 120 degrees for two hours. So the source of the heat has to be a higher temperature than that. If you're using space heaters, you need a temperature probe in that crevice to note when it gets to 120 degrees. And If the heat source is up to 140 or 160, then you have to worry the plastic in your TV sets and electronics might melt. So these are all reasons why it's very difficult for residents to do themselves.
What do you do when you travel to avoid bringing home bed bugs?
When I go into a hotel room, I'll spend five minutes checking the headboard and the mattress and sheets up by the head of the bed. I'll put my suitcase on the luggage rack because bed bugs are less likely to crawl up the metal legs of the rack. The problem is, someone may have brought bed bugs in their luggage and used the rack, so you want to inspect the rack too. One thing you can do is plug in a blow dryer and blow it around the headboard -- the heat can cause the bed bugs to come out. A lot of times, headboards are mounted on the wall, and you can lift the headboard out and look behind. It's not a 100 percent guarantee that you will find them, but it's worth looking.
To be safe, when you get home, take your suitcase straight to the laundry room and wash and dry your clothes right away.
For further help with IPM approaches to managing bed bugs, see:
last revised 8/8/2011