Infestation: Nightmare on Bedbug Street

They're back with a vengeance. Why the best defense may be nonchemical

  • Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

    An exterminator prepares to use a heat treatment at a San Francisco apartment infested with bed bugs.

    An hour after falling asleep in a hotel in Bologna, Italy, I woke up to a nightmare. Flicking on the bedside lamp, I saw a dozen or more small reddish-brown bugs on the crisp white linen near my pillow. The bugs were moving slowly, apparently in a state of blood-gorged euphoria, and I was able to trap a few under an ashtray with one hand while dialing the front desk with the other as I tried to remember the Italian word for bug. A hotel manager bustled up and assured me in accented English that the creatures were "just from the garden," but he moved me to another room anyway.

    The next night, with red, itchy welts from head to foot, I identified my little bedmates by going to Google and looking up pictures of bedbugs.

    Nearly eradicated for the past half-century in the industrialized world, Cimex lectularis (the second word stems from the Latin for small bed) is on the rise and presenting a 21st century environmental challenge. In the Mad Men days of pest control, the local bug specialist would visit a house with a gleaming sprayer and leave every surface soaked, bedding included. If little Susie and Johnny subsequently developed a headache or cough, well, they just needed to get a little sunshine and fresh air. "You could go down to the local drugstore, buy a DDT bug bomb, and everybody could slay their own bedbugs," says Michael F. Potter, a University of Kentucky entomologist who spends hours pouring poisons on bedbugs in his lab, seeking the elusive potion that kills them without harming humans or pets.

    The bugs developed a resistance to DDT decades ago, but Potter says there is still at least one pesticide, propoxur, that kills adult bedbugs within 24 hours and keeps killing newborns as they hatch. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, however, banned propoxur for in-home use in the 1990s, on the basis of animal tests and ill effects on adult workers who were exposed to it. "We believe the window between a safe dose and a dangerous dose for a toddler is very small," says EPA pesticide chief Steven Bradbury.

    All over the world, national and local governments are mobilizing strategies to control infestations of the resilient insects, which can hide in almost any crack or crevice--not just in houses and hotels but also in offices, churches, libraries and restaurants--and can go a year or more without eating. On Aug. 10, the EPA issued a consumer alert about off-label bedbug treatments, warning in particular of the dangers of using outdoor pesticides in homes. This summer, New York City allocated $500,000 to a bedbug battle plan that includes a Web portal to educate a freaked-out public and training for pest-management professionals. Similar defenses have been mounted in other U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Chicago and Cincinnati, where the problem is so dire that the city created a Bedbug Remediation Commission in 2007 and some people with infested apartments have resorted to sleeping on the streets.

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