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Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
As bed bugs flourish, humans continue to cast about for solutions. At the second annual Bed Bug University North American Summit in Chicago at the end of September, scientists, pest-control specialists and laypeople gathered to share information and to take stock of where we are now in the fight against the marauders.
I could not be at the conference, but Bedbugger.com, the go-to site for sufferers and pros alike, ran a thorough forum thread about the goings-on.
So where do we stand today as opposed to the 1940s, the last time that bed bugs were even close to this prevalent?
Back then, there was DDT and the bugs died from it. Back then, people had less clutter in which bed bugs could hide. Back then, people inspected regularly and were ace at prevention. Bed bugs, in other words, were on the radar.
Life today is different. Our clutter provides many bed bug havens. We are not in the habit of inspecting our homes regularly. The substances that used to work, notably insecticides such as DDT, no longer kill these pests effectively. And at least one attendee overheard the suggestion that Cimex lectularius be dubbed the ostrich bug—presumably because of the degree to which people stick their heads in the sand, ignoring the problem, until it quite literally bites them.
Thus we are starting from scratch, so to speak, on a number of levels. Part of the problem is that the experts in the first half of the 20th century are largely deceased and cannot advise us. But the early 21st century has also provided a different context in which bed bugs have resurged. Some of what those long-gone experts would have told us no longer applies.
The newness can work in our favor as well. We’ve got many more advancements and methods to combat the creatures, such as Vikane fumigation and sophisticated heat treatment.
Research is targeting detection and eradication. Where detection is involved, cautionary tales are still surfacing about bed bug–sniffing dogs, with some canines failing to distinguish live from dead bed bugs in a large percentage of cases.
When it comes to eradication, professionals are still in the throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall stage in terms of advances. There are more sophisticated methods available than before, and many tools are being developed. But fewer chemical methods work, and failsafe products such as Vikane fumigation can be expensive.
Multi-pronged approaches are necessary because each “prong” has flaws—for example, up to 90 percent of bed bugs may be resistant to pyrethrins—so they complement each other.
Heat treatment is effective as long as any avenue of bed bug escape is closed off. If the creatures can find a cooler spot deep inside a baseboard, for instance, they will survive. Once introduced into a structure and driven into the wall voids (those spaces between walls in apartments and within buildings), bed bugs can become entrenched for quite some time.
Alternatively, according to a recent, encouraging article in Slate, once you get rid of the things, your chances of re-infestation are not as great as public hysteria would have us fear.
David Cain, the London-based bed bug expert, critiqued the conference for Pest Magazine.
At the end of the day, the basic structures in which bed bugs hide—buildings and furniture—remain the same. It’s the methods of tracking them down that need refinement, along with our habits—regular inspection being the most important—and our attitudes toward handling an infestation.
As this column has said many times, any solution that’s not accompanied by neighbor and management/landlord cooperation has less chance of working, since the bugs will likely be driven elsewhere and come back.
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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