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Bed Bug Insecticides Causing Sickness, Officials Warn

By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sept. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Bed bug infestations are bad enough, but a new report finds that more than 100 Americans have become sickened from exposure to the insecticides used to eliminate the pests.

The cases happened across seven states, researchers said, and bed bug insecticide exposure may have even contributed to one death.

"The majority of cases involved misuse," said report co-author Dr. Geoffrey Calvert, a medical officer at the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Although the issue is not yet a major public health problem, he did offer one key recommendation for folks battling bed bugs.

"If you can't control bed bugs with non-chemical means, such as washing and vacuuming, that means it's probably going to be difficult to eradicate them, and we would recommend that people enlist the services of a pest control operator," Calvert said.

The findings are published in the Sept. 23 issue of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Bed bugs have made a notable comeback over the past few years across the United States and beyond. In San Francisco, for example, reports of bed bug infestations doubled between 2004 and 2006, one study found.

In the new study, the researchers looked at data on illnesses linked to bed bug eradication efforts reported via a federally funded pesticide illness surveillance program between 2003 and 2010. They found 111 such cases across seven states.

Most of the cases, 93 percent, were among people who tried to solve a bed bug problem at home. Most of the illnesses involved headache and dizziness, pain while breathing, difficulty breathing and nausea and vomiting, according to the report. Many of those who fell ill were workers -- such as EMS technicians and carpet cleaners -- who visited homes but had not been told that insecticides had recently been used.

Most of the illnesses did not require medical treatment and resolved in about a day, Calvert stressed. But about 18 percent of cases were more severe and required medical attention, he added.

One associated death was reported: In 2010, a woman in North Carolina who had a history of heart attacks, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and depression died after her husband used too much pesticide to try to kill bed bugs. The pesticide turned out to be ineffective against bed bugs and was used inappropriately over several days -- the woman even sprayed the pesticide, plus a flea insecticide, on her hair, arms and chest before going to bed, the report's authors said.

In another case in Ohio in 2010, an uncertified exterminator used malathion up to five times a day over three days in an apartment to treat a bed bug infestation. The product used was not registered for indoor use, and so much was dispensed that beds and floor coverings were saturated, according to the report. The result: Children living in the apartment required medical help and were unable to live there again. The exterminator pleaded guilty to criminal charges, was fined and put on probation.

Calvert noted that the cases documented in his team's report are most likely only a fraction of actual illnesses, since most people affected probably never reported their symptoms and got better on their own.

If consumers attempt to control the pests on their own, Calvert advised they first make sure that the pesticide they use is made specifically for controlling bed bugs. Second, they should read the label before using the pesticide and follow the directions carefully. In addition, people living in or visiting the treated space should be notified that a pesticide has been used before they enter, he said.

In some cases, professional help may be necessary.

Overall, the findings "draw attention to the necessity of effective bed bug control by a licensed, qualified pest professional," said Missy Henriksen, a spokeswoman for the National Pest Management Association.

Because bed bugs are one of the most difficult pests to control, eradicating them can require a partnership between a consumer and a qualified and licensed pest professional who will effectively inspect and treat an infestation, she said.

"Treatment may incorporate the use of professional-grade products as well as non-chemical measures such as heating or cooling rooms, vacuuming, laundering and disposal of items," Henriksen said.

More information

There's more on bed bugs at Cornell University.

Keeping Bed Bugs at Bay

Of course, your best defense against bed bugs is to prevent them from making their way to your home. Any time you travel, you're at risk of picking up bed bugs -- even in the ritziest of hotels, according to the experts. So, if you're traveling, these tips from Greg Baumann, a senior scientist with the National Pest Management Association, may help you keep these critters from crawling into your bed:

  • Check the bed and headboard. When you first check in, look for any signs of small blood smears on the sheets. Look at the bed skirts and headboard for signs of bugs or any type of staining. Baumann suggested checking the furniture as well.
  • If you see any evidence of bed bugs, either immediately or after sleeping in the bed, contact the hotel management right away. Baumann said that most hotels have detailed plans in place, and they'll relocate you and take that room out of service to address the problem.
  • Check your suitcases when you get home. Even if you're confident that the hotel was clean, your bags probably still spent time pressed up against someone else's luggage while you were traveling.
  • Wash all of your clothing in warm water when you get home. If a bed bug has survived in your clothing, a warm water wash should kill it, said Baumann. It's also a good idea to vacuum your suitcase when you get home.

Baumann said people should, "stay calm about bed bugs, but be vigilant, because they're becoming more and more common."

SOURCES: Geoffrey Calvert, M.D., medical officer, U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health; Missy Henriksen, spokeswoman, and Greg Baumann, senior scientist, National Pest Management Association; Sept. 23, 2011, CDC, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report

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