Bed Bugs Now With Super Bug: Still Just a “Nuisance,” EPA?

As my colleague Angela Logomasini noted in a post in January, the EPA has rebuffed the desperate pleas of lawmakers and residents to un-ban certain pesticides for the treatment of bed bugs. When asked why Ohio’s Gov. Ted Strickland’s request for an emergency exemption to use two very effective, but banned pesticides to fight the parasites, Lisa Jackson, head administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency replied that bed bugs were simply “a nuisance.” “We’re lucky — bed bugs don’t carry disease. But if you have to sleep in a bed and worry about being bitten all night, it sort of messes with your mind. And we get that,” said Jackson. How nice.

Clearly Ms. Jackson hasn’t spent much time speaking with people who have had bed bugs. More than a mere nuisance, they can force families to shell out thousands of dollars in repeat treatments, hospital visits (if reactions to the bites are severe), medication such as antibiotics, damaged relationships, damaged psyches, and damaged careers. Despite her sympathy, Ms. Jackson denied Ohio’s request for an emergency exemption.

At the time, Jackson believed that bed bugs do not carry disease. Unfortunately, we know better now. A recent study out of Canada found bed bugs carrying the drug-resistant strain of the Staphylococcus bacterium (also known as the MRSA and a “superbug”). While they have not been able to conclusively prove that the bed bugs are spreading the disease to their human hosts, their carrying the disease while causing the host to scratch the skin certainly seems like it would increase the likelihood of infection. In an article in the June 2011 issue of Emerging Infectious Disease, a CDC public health journal, discussed the possible correlation between increasing rates of MRSA infection and increasing infestations of bed bugs.

So far, the EPA has continued to deny the requests to allow the use of effective pesticide treatments to deal with bed bug infestations. In her response to Ohio’s Gov. Ted Strickland who had requested an emergency exemption to use the chemical propoxur to treat the state’s bed bug epidemic, Jackson’s coldly replied:

Although EPA recognizes the severe and urgent challenges that Ohio is facing from bed bugs, the results of the risk assessment do not support the necessary safety findings as required by the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). In particular, the requested use presents an unacceptable risk to children who might be exposed to propoxur in and around rooms treated for bed bugs.

Jackson says this without considering the fact that many affected homes may not have children and for an utter disregard for the health side effects of repeatedly using less effective pesticides. And, as Angela noted in her post, propoxur, which can be toxic if used improperly, but has no reported carcinogenic effects and is very effective when used by a professional.

The one reasonable opposition to the use of strong pesticides that some have asserted, Jackson included, is that the increasing strength of pesticides simply encourages future generations of bed bugs to build a resistance which could amount to “a cure that’s actually worse than the disease.” Yet, it is more reasonable to assume that the larger the epidemic becomes the more opportunity the bugs have to evolve (fewer bugs means a diminishing chance that the pesticide-resistant genes are passed along).

Regardless of the good intentions of Ms. Jackson, or the original 1996 pesticides act (which some have pointed to as the cause of the bed bug resurgence), clearly the problem of bed bugs requires swift action before it becomes a nation-wide epidemic and before we see more evidence that drug-resistant bacteria are spreading via bed bugs. It’s time to let individuals to the cost-benefit analysis and decide the best course of treatment for their own lives, wallets, and sanity.