On getting better pesticides for killing bed bugs (no, DDT is not one of them)

by nobugsonme on January 7, 2009 · 4 comments

in bed bug laws, bed bug legislation, bed bug treatment, bed bugs, canada, DDT, entomologists, history, new york, pesticides, public health, pyrethroid resistance, steam, thermal treatment, usa

I was poking around some historical items, for reasons which will soon become revealed to you, dear readers, when I found an interesting document from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation which outlines the history of DDT in Canada, the US (the three countries represented on the CEC) until 1997.  Click here to load a PDF of History of DDT in North America to 1997, from the CEC.

Please understand: we don’t think DDT is a solution for bed bugs now. Sure — despite being ecologically-minded and kind of nervous around pesticides in general — like many of you, my first reaction to bed bugs was “Bring back DDT!”  However, learning more made me realize this was not practical, and not even an effective solution anymore. I don’t want to entertain a discussion of this.

The fact is, bed bugs started showing resistance to DDT as early as 1948 in Hawaii, and reports from the 1950s and 1960s, as well more recently, tell us that bed bugs were not killed when spraying with DDT was done for malarial mosquitos. (This BBC article from 2001 claims that DDT spraying for malarial mosquitos in South Africa made bed bugs more active. Shudder.)

If you don’t believe bed bugs are resistant to DDT, Renee has previously laid out all the evidence for you at New York vs. Bed Bugs, in this post, and I encourage you to check it out.

However, I do think this CEC history of DDT is relevant to us today, in terms of thinking about the laws around pesticides.

In 1969, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) cancelled the registration of certain uses of DDT (on shade trees, on tobacco, in the home, and in aquatic environments) after studying the persistence of DDT residues in the environment. Applications on crops, commercial plants, wood products, and for building purposes were cancelled by the USDA in 1970. Under the authority of the EPA, the registrations of the remaining DDT products and DDT-metabolites were cancelled on 4 January 1973, with the following exemptions: public health use for control of vector-borne diseases, USDA or military use for health quarantine, and use in prescription drugs for controlling body lice. All of these remaining uses were voluntarily cancelled (due to failure to pay maintenance fees) by October 1989.

Emphasis mine.

I had not realized that even after being outlawed in the US for home and agricultural use in 1970, and after being prohibited for most other uses in 1973, you could still legally get DDT until 1989 for some purposes including treating pests which caused vector-borne diseases (a category which does not include bed bugs) and for body lice.

This is relevant because, while DDT does not appear to be one of them, there are classes of chemicals which are currently outlawed in certain areas which are effective against bed bugs.  It is worth remembering that agencies can make exceptions to allow some of those substances to be labeled for bed bug use and allowed in controlled situations.  Winston gives us a glimpse of one product not available for this use in the US, Ficam, here:

… as mentioned in my first piece, misguided legislation have forced many products out of the market. Some due to legitimate concerns, some due to a lack of true scientific evaluation and feel-good politics, and some because they simply could not afford to maintain registration due to increased requirements. A prime example of this is Ficam, a material which is used elsewhere with a degree of success, but here in the US is no more. The same in fact would have been true of Drione, one of the remaining effective dusts. Prior to the bed bug outbreak this product was due to go by the wayside simply because of economics, and now it is probably one of the good long-term materials when used properly in wall voids, outlet covers and cracks and crevices.

As Winston has reminded us elsewhere, even pyrethrins are outlawed for use in city-owned buildings by Local Law 37.  Despite pyrethroid-resistance, pyrethrins can be an important part of a bed bug treatment plan.  This law is misguided and means residents of public housing, homes, kids in public school classrooms and people in city-run institutions may have less effective bed bug treatment.

And while some might think LL 37 is protecting New York citizens’ health, you have to ask yourself: if the pesticides prohibited in publicly-owned buildings, then they’d be outlawed in private schools and apartment  buildings too, not just in the city-owned buildings.

In New York, it’s one reason we need to encourage the city to take action.  Some legislative changes can help in the fight against bed bugs.

As Michael Potter said last summer at the PCT Bed Bug Seminar,

“If there is a classic example of why you don’t eliminate entire classes of pesticides,” Potter said, “bed bugs are it. We’re in a heap of trouble in terms of the products we have available to fight this pest,” citing several classes of chemistry that are no longer available (e.g., organophosphates, carbamates, etc.) and the growing threat of pyrethroid resistance. As a result, he said, “I don’t see how this problem is going to get better. I think it’s going to get chaotic. This is the most challenging pest I’ve encountered in my career. We’re in big trouble.”

We are in big trouble.

I don’t even know how to begin to help lobby for better pesticides.  I assume pest control operators, entomologists, and their professional organizations are doing so.  Maybe they can tell us if there’s something we bed bug activists can do to help.   It seems so essential that we get all the help we can get in fighting bed bugs.

Finally, because someone always asks: I am not pesticide-happy. I am, in fact, more enthusiastic about non-chemical solutions to bed bugs. Not only because they do develop resistance to pesticides, but also because I seek safe, ecologically-friendly, easy solutions to bed bug problems.

Steaming, thermal treatments, and other solutions are labor-intensive. Steam requires dedicated, persistent, repetead work (and in most cases, probably requires the backup use of targeted use of dusts or sprays).

Thermal treatments require an experienced operator and expensive equipment. For those who can afford it, and who have access to knowledgeable providers, this can be a good option. We can only hope that effective non-chemical options will become more widely available and less costly.

When we’re talking about the extensive spread of bed bugs, though, we have to be realistic about the types of treatment likely to be implemented. Making sure the most effective pesticides (or at least, a variety of pesticides, to help offset resistance to individual chemicals) is probably better for both people living with bed bugs, as well as the environment.  Because getting rid of the problem more quickly means less pesticides will be needed.

Once the bed bug epidemic is under control, and we’re back where we were in the 1970s, with isolated outbreaks, then we might be able to deal with the problem in other ways. We’re a long way from that situation.  And we will probably never get there again if pest control operators are not able to use whatever tools they can safely use in order to eliminate them.


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