Bedbugged! Avoiding deadly acts of desperation

By Theresa Braine  | September 29, 2011 - 12:45PM

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

Last week the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with a report, Acute Illnesses Associated With Insecticides Used to Control Bed Bugs—Seven States, 2003–2010.

The title is something of a misnomer, as the cause of the various malaises that afflicted the people studied did not stem solely from the pesticides themselves, but from the way they were applied.

“Factors that most frequently contributed to insecticide-related illness were excessive insecticide application (18%), failure to wash or change pesticide-treated bedding (16%), and inadequate notification of pesticide application (11%),” the CDC said.

The most striking case, and the one that made headlines, was that of a woman in North Carolina who died after she and her husband self-treated for bed bugs. I read of another case a couple of years ago (this one on about a man dying after he cleaned up pesticides applied by a professional (with the PCO's blessing), succumbing, it seemed, to the fumes. 

The CDC report sheds light on a problem borne of two misunderstandings: One, the misconception that bed bugs are critters on which you simply spray poison and you’re done, as with roaches or ants; and two, society's lack of recognition that such measures are symptoms of how crazed and desperate you get when the bed bugs are unremitting. 

This desperation speaks to the need to take the mental-health aspects of infestation seriously.

Regarding the first false impression: I am amazed at how many people, faced with the mere possibility of a bed bug infestation, take drastic measures without researching the problem.

I hear or read all too often about folks automatically throwing out their furniture, spraying alcohol or other substances around (sometimes enough to cause fires) and behaving as if they know more about bed bugs than the world’s leading entomologists. Indeed, they don't even think of it as an entomology issue. 

There’s a peculiar combination of naivete and arrogance involved here, though on a subconscious level. On the one hand, these people manifest a kind of blind trust in the manufacturers and vendors of insecticides, assuming that if it’s all right to spray something around your house, that something is “safe” at any level. 

At the same time, they don't take personal responsibility when it comes to reading and obeying manufacturers’ instructions and labels. 

These same individuals exhibit a kind of arrogance, though without realizing it, convinced that they know exactly what needs to be done, and how. I suspect it’s an outgrowth of the notion that we are masters of our environment, rational and intelligent beings, smarter than the bugs.

We may not be. The husband of the woman who died set off no fewer than nine foggers on each of two days—an ill-advised response to bed bugs on many counts. Foggers may very well scatter these pests rather than kill them. And as this woman’s fate testifies, too much insecticide can kill you (although she had a host of health problems going in).

Mind you, I totally understand where these panicked people are coming from. I was there once myself. That’s why I'm in a unique position to remind anyone in the throes of infestation to not lose sight of the goal: getting rid of the bugs.

Doing so often requires counterintuitive, nonlinear thinking, and handing over the reins—and the pesticides—to qualified professionals who know what they’re doing.

This is what I’m talking about when I say that people need to keep their cool when faced with bed bugs. Many of the problems outlined in the CDC report reflect what can go wrong when they don’t.

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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Bed bugs 101: Fumigation Demystified (sponsored)

How to bed bug proof your NYC apartment

How bed bugs spread through apartment buildings

How to talk to your neighbors and your landlord about bed bugs

Can you get bed bugs or lice through a communal laundry room?


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