Infestation: Nightmare on Bedbug Street

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

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

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Concerns about propoxur's health effects on children didn't stop the Ohio Department of Agriculture from petitioning the EPA for an exemption to allow in-home use of the neurotoxicant. Although the EPA rejected Ohio's propoxur plea in June, the agency scheduled an Aug. 18 meeting with state and municipal leaders to try to formulate an abatement strategy everyone could live with. Among the meeting's participants: representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, no joke, the Department of Defense.

But before we join Ohioans and hit the streets with "Spray, baby, spray" placards, it's worth noting that scientists don't agree on whether a silver-bullet pesticide exists. "Propoxur might work for a few years, but then we would select for the genetically resistant bedbugs, and they would be right back," says Dini Miller, an entomologist at Virginia Tech and the state's urban-pest-management specialist.

That leaves behavioral lines of defense as the most durable strategies. Dogs have been trained to sniff out bedbugs, and specialized pest companies can haul in machines that heat entire rooms to well north of 113°F (45°C), at which point the bugs die. Heat treatments cost thousands of dollars per room, but the lower-cost alternative of simply throwing out your infested mattress or furniture likely won't solve the problem--and may spread it to your salvaging neighbor.

For home infestations, the EPA recommends reducing clutter, sealing cracks and crevices, vacuuming often, drying infested clothes at high heat and using a special mattress cover so you can sleep tight without letting the bedbugs bite. Travelers should inspect hotel mattresses, box springs and headboards for the pests and the ink-like streaks of their droppings.

Bedbugs don't transmit disease, but they can be harmful to mental health, as many Ohioans (and I) can attest. "We are hopeful that the outcome of this meeting provides a solution," Ohio agriculture secretary Robert Boggs says of the Aug. 18 session. "Quite frankly, something needs to happen, and it needs to happen quickly."

To my great relief, the bedbugs Bolognese didn't follow me home. I carefully inspected my luggage for stowaways and tossed my clothes into an outdoor shed upon arrival. But I haven't slept quite as soundly in a hotel bed since. On my to-do list: buying a mattress cover that can fit in my carry-on.

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