Bedbugged! 2 things not to try at home

By Theresa Braine  | July 28, 2011 - 11:24AM

Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.

A report came out recently about a house fire that started as an Ohio man sprayed rubbing alcohol on his sofa to self-treat for bed bugs while smoking a cigarette. Luckily, damage was contained mostly to the couch.

As foolish as this sounds, it was not the first time something like this had been tried. Throughout history, bed bugs have pushed people over the edge, causing them to abandon all common sense in their determination to get relief. Lately more and more accounts are surfacing, from the comical to the tragic, of treatment—especially self-treatment—gone horribly wrong. once noted an article, no longer online, suggesting that a 1909 fire in Chicago that killed 50 workmen in their housing may have been started accidentally when a janitor sprinkled gasoline to ward off bed bugs. 

While such stories are extreme (and the Ohio incident sounds more like a nomination for the Darwin Awards than something that most people would try), they illustrate the importance of creating a comprehensive approach to the bed bug problem. By that I don't mean the scattershot task forces and local health departments that are casting desperately about for solutions.  

Clearly we have advanced beyond 1909, and most of you reading this column would have the sense (I hope) to call in a professional when facing an infestation. Even if you didn't, a DIY most likely would not end so drastically. But these stories highlight the importance of calling in the pros at the micro level and of calling on public policy to address the issue at the macro level. 

The stories also speak volumes about how desperate an infestation can make someone feel and act. Sleep-deprived, mentally alone and often broke, people lose all sense of perspective and try a remedy that is worse than the pests themselves.

What baffles me is how many people do not understand the importance of calling in an expert sooner rather than later. I marvel at the number of people who think that bed bugs are a simple problem and that they know more about these bugs than an entomologist does. One look at a bug and they think roach, and spray accordingly, or set off insecticide bombs. I can sort of see it: These things are just bugs, you think. How hard could it be?

But it is not at all simple. A bed bug's M.O. and biology are nothing like a roach's, or any other bug's. Although both have the same motive, which is to feed, each goes about it very differently. So killing off bed bugs calls for other measures entirely. In fact, as I've documented in previous columns, what one does to get rid of roaches and other pests may in fact exacerbate and spread a bed bug infestation. 

Yet people persist in treating the problem themselves, sometimes with dire consequences. Last September a Lexington, Kentucky, woman heated her infested bedroom to 95 degrees with a camping grill, thinking she'd get rid of the bugs. Guess what happened instead? She ended up with a damaged footboard and hardwood floor. And she still had bed bugs—although they may very well have been startled into scattering.

Then there was the New York City public-housing worker who faces up to seven years in jail for taking a lighter to what she suspected was a bed bug–infested mattress left in a hallway in October 2010. For a second we'll overlook the fact that she could have called workmen and an exterminator to treat and dispose of the offending item, as the Daily News pointed out. 

A story a few months ago out of Thailand implicated bed-bug treatment in the deaths of some tourists, though that was not proven and may have been the result of a combination of chemicals rather than the one used to kill the bed bugs.

Lastly there's the tragic 2007 case of a Saudi man who accidentally killed two of his three young daughters and hospitalized a third with a misapplication of pesticide—it turned out to be for industrial use only. 

Such accidents are also examples of the macro problem: A failure to take large-scale action and a lack of affordable treatment can wreak havoc far beyond the scope of the bugs without necessarily getting rid of them.

It's bad enough when sanctioned heat and other treatment go awry, as documented by recent reports of fires caused by malfunctioning heat treatment. (Note that these are accidents, not the norm; heat treatment performed correctly is very effective at ridding a home of bed bugs.)

In May, for example, a Cincinnati home caught fire during a routine thermal bed-bug extermination. The house was a total loss. 

And just a couple of weeks ago, on July 12, four family members, including two children, were injured when fire broke out in a four-story apartment building in the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta. It was sparked by combustible material in a flat being treated for bed bugs. Not only that, but damage also totaled about $4.5 million, authorities said, and put dozens of residents out of a home for the next several months. 

Who knows what went wrong in those two cases, but at the very least they indicate that more oversight and regulation are needed. 

Taken together, these examples speak to the need for a more comprehensive approach to bed bug eradication.

At least at the end of the fires, the bed bugs were dead—except, of course, the ones that got away and are now spreading the problem further.

Next week: Bed bugs and materialism. 

Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact.
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