EPA Holds First-Ever Bedbug Summit as Infestations Rise

Published July 1, 2009

The bedbug, an obnoxious pest long thought confined to the sleepless nights of a bygone era, is back.

From college dormitories and homeless shelters to hospital maternity wards, high-end condos, and swanky hotels, bedbugs are embarked on one of the most remarkable entomological comebacks in recent memory.

“The problem seems to be increasing, and it could definitely be worse in densely populated areas like cities, although it can be a problem for anyone,” Lois Rossi, director of the registration division in EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, told ABC News on April 14. Her remarks came during EPA’s first-ever Bedbug Summit, a two-day conference that attracted some 300 participants to Arlington, Virginia in mid-April.

Adult bedbugs are reddish-brown and 4-5mm (1/8-3/16 of an inch) in length and live in crevices and folds in mattresses, sofas, and sheets. Bedbugs subsist on human blood and typically bite their victims shortly before dawn. Although their bites are usually painless and are not thought to transmit diseases, they can cause infections and allergic reactions in some people.

During their heyday, the apple seed-sized creatures became the scourge of many a household, giving rise to the bedtime saying, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

DDT Stopped Them

The bedbug’s reign of terror, however, seemingly came to an end with the advent of modern pest-management techniques. Pesticides, particularly DDT, intended to kill cockroaches had the unintended but welcome benefit of dealing a death blow to bedbugs. Beginning with the end of World War II and continuing for the next half-century, the bedbug all but disappeared from the United States, Europe, and other developed parts of the world.

But the victory proved to be short-lived. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the creature was reappearing in bedrooms around the world, in rich and poor countries alike. The situation became so bad in the United States that in 2002 EPA declared the bedbug “a pest of significant public health importance.”

Regulations Stymie Treatments

It is the agency’s own policies that paved the way for the bedbug’s remarkable comeback. With DDT and a host of other potent pesticides banned for spurious environmental reasons, pest-management specialists no longer have the proper weapons in their arsenal to combat bedbugs.

The pest-management industry is scrambling to develop new products to eradicate the bedbugs, but getting new pesticides registered at EPA can be a painstakingly long process.

None of the products currently on the market is nearly as effective in eradicating bedbugs as DDT, which was banned by EPA in 1973. Lacking any serious opposition, bedbugs continue their slow but steady re-conquest of the nation’s bedrooms.

“This is a very good time to reconsider our approach to pesticide regulations,” said Angela Logomasini, Ph.D., director of risk studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Not only is DDT gone, but many other useful products have been regulated out of existence without weighing the risks of not having them.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.