Growing numbers of bedbug outbreaks are prompting more people to use insecticides, sometimes with dire results.
People creeped-out by rising rates of bed bug infestations may be taking eradication too far, according to federal health officials alarmed by growing reports of pesticide misuse -- and poisonings.
Between 2006 and 2010, there were 129 reports of people who suffered mild to serious health harms when outdoor pesticides were used indoors, according to a health advisory issued this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. One woman died.
“Many people are somewhat desperate to find any solution,” said Bernadette Burden, a CDC spokeswoman. “This is something they’re not used to. Oftentimes, they’re tempted to use any insecticide that they can get their hands on.”
That was certainly true for Melissa Constantinou, 25, a personal chef in Lowell, Mass., who was plagued with bedbugs last year. Her apartment was treated four times and she says the potential for health problems never entered her mind.
“Oh my gosh, it’s so emotionally disturbing,” she said. “I was willing to do whatever it took. I didn’t think about the long-term effects at all.”
The problem is “an emerging national concern,” the health agencies said, citing data from the National Pesticide Information Center, where inquiries about bedbugs nearly doubled between 2007 and 2011. Nationwide, reports of bedbug infestations have been rising for years, the CDC says. Between January 2008 and April 2012, first-time service calls for bed bug treatment tripled, from about 100 to 300 requests a month, according to a survey conducted by Jeff White, technical director of the website BedBug Central.
Most of the problems arise when people use too much pesticide or apply it improperly, said David Stone, director of the NPIC, who monitors the data.
“A lot of them don’t understand that the label is the law,” said Stone. “This product should not be applied directly to the skin. That product should not be used on mattresses.”
Victims suffered typical symptoms of pesticide poisoning, including headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness and muscle tremors.
In Ohio, in 2010, a family that included two parents, four young children and a roommate all became ill after an uncertified pesticide company used malathion to spray an apartment five times over three days. The pesticide malathion was not registered for indoor use and the crew applied it so liberally that the beds and floor coverings were saturated, according to a recent CDC account.
The death occurred when a 65-year-old North Carolina woman with heart and kidney problems became ill after liberal pesticide use. She and her husband sprayed all the walls and baseboards in the house with one kind of insecticide, used a different insecticide on the mattress and box springs, and opened nine cans of insecticide fogger. Two days later, they reapplied insecticides to the mattresses and box springs and opened another nine cans of a different fogger. The woman applied a flea and bedbug pesticide to her arms, sores on her chest and her hair before covering it with a plastic cap.
Two days after the second application of the pesticides, the woman’s husband found her unresponsive. She was hospitalized for nine days before her death, the CDC report said.
“Outdoor pesticides should not be used indoors under any circumstances,” ATSDR officials warn. Consumers must make sure to read the product labels carefully to make sure they’re registered with the Environmental Protection Agency and that they’re certified for indoor use.
“More importantly, follow the guidance and make sure you’re using the right pesticide and that you’re treating the right pest,” said the CDC’s Burden, who noted that bedbugs often can resemble other critters at different stages in their life cycle.