Ask Umbra on planet-friendlier ways to prevent and kill bed bugs
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Q. Dear Umbra,
I desperately need your help. My house has become infested with bedbugs! I’m trying to find an environmentally friendly way to get rid of them. I’ve tried a thorough cleaning and tried using diatomaceous earth (fossil shell flour) to no avail. The local exterminator is looking more and more appealing. Please stop me before I do something rash like resorting to him and the nasty chemicals he’ll be using.
Photo courtesy PeterEdin via FlickrA. Dearest Ofer,
You wrote this letter two years ago. I answered you then, but it felt like a good time to revisit the issue for you and anyone else out there worried about or living with bedbugs. (BTW: I hope your bedbug problem has long been solved.)
As a one-time victim, you probably know that bedbugs have now reached epidemic proportions — in the media and, unfortunately, in many cities around the U.S. The bugs, the size of apple seeds, are trying to take over the Big Apple. And they’re not just gobbling up Gotham — Cincinnati, Ohio has been bit the worst, followed by Columbus, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Washington, D.C., then New York, Philly, Dayton, and Baltimore. Ninety-five percent of the pest management companies in the U.S. have answered the calls of the bed buggered. That’s compared to a mere 25 percent that were pressed into service in 2000, according to the National Pest Management Association.
The bedbug infestation even made last week’s Colbert Report. Colbert joked that bedbugs and environmentalists are two of the greatest threats to life as we know it. But as you know, Ofer, there’s nothing funny about bedbugs — or many environmentalists.
Speaking of the bedbug/environmentalist connection, though, here are a few preventive insights to keep you, yours, and the planet from sleeping with the proverbial enemy:
- Get caulk: Bedbugs have a sneaky way of traveling around apartments and other environments through tiny nooks and crannies in walls and floors. Sealing up your domicile is a great way to keep cretins out and heat in. Bug prevention and energy saving rolled up into one!
- Stay home: International travel has been blamed for the widespread spread of the embedded bloodsuckers. Consider taking a flight or two less a year. You’ll reduce your carbon and bedbug footprints. Remember: bedbugs like to travel. So if you do leave town, make sure you check the mattress in your hotel room — especially along the seams — to make sure you’re not staying at a bed and bugfest. Doing a luggage bug check when you return home and a load of laundry won’t hurt either.
- Unstuff your life: Clutter is a key habitat for bedbugs. By reducing the amount of stuff you have, you remove potential apartments for the little insect vampires. Plus, by buying less stuff, you’ll discover the joy of less as more. You’ll also avoid picking up a hitchhiker bug from infested stores such as Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch.
If you’ve taken these preventive measures and are still concerned you may be bugged, here’s the protocol for effective eradication:
First, confirm that you really have bedbugs. You can check with your local County Extension Office for free, or use Identify.us, which lets you submit specimens for a positive ID. Why go through the trouble of treating for bedbugs if you’ve got something else?
Second, if you do have the beasts in your bed, I cannot stress highly enough the importance of getting a professional involved. Getting rid of bedbugs, like having your appendix out, is one of those times when working with someone with experience and training is crucial. Find a licensed, recommended pest company. If you’re a renter, inform your landlord straight away.
Create a bed bug treatment plan using what is known as Integrated Pest Management, which the Environmental Protection Agency describes as an “effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices.” In other words, clean everything in your bedbug infested home. As I mentioned to you last time, Ofer, tightly bag up all your garments and bedding. Then vacuum every crevice of the house (and don’t forget to put the vacuumings in a tightly sealed bag before disposing of them).
Dry steam, high heat, and freezing spell death to bedbugs. Wash and dry your clothes and bedding using the high heat setting on a washer and dryer. If you live in a very cold climate, you can leave clothes and bedding outside to freeze for several days.
You can do all this before your pest control professional of choice arrives. When he or she does show up, be ready for some chemical treatments. I mean pesticides, the part of bedbug removal which is best left to the professionals.
The recent bedbug burst has led to pesticide misuse, like spraying hazardous chemicals intended for outdoor use in the house. These pesticides are dangerous. They can damage the central nervous system, and even cause cancer. Given the choice of lying in a bed filled with bedbugs or one sprayed with unapproved pesticides, I’d have to choose the bedbugs. They are gross and annoying, but they’re far less dangerous to your health. Besides, bedbugs have become resistant to most household pesticides. Using harsher pesticides may only make them stronger in the long run. A trusted professional is your best bet for chemical treatments.
Note that a responsible pest controller will not put pesticides on your bed, and will debug with a combination of pesticides and non-chemical approaches.
Be extremely cautious with your infested possessions, including those that you need to throw out. Keep everything isolated, encased in plastic. You should even deface discards so that some unsuspecting dumpster diver doesn’t take them home. If you have an infected mattress you need to get rid of, rest assured you can still recycle its materials.
And double check anything you’re considering taking off the sidewalk or buying second hand.
Lastly, and I say this to all of you: Try not to worry about bedbugs too much. It’s all too common to get OCD, as well as itchy at the mere mention of them. Take a deep breath and think pretty thoughts. And if you need more extensive information on bedbugs, check out the Centers for Disease Control site, NYC’s bed bug blog, and the EPA.
Good night, everyone. And do sleep tight.
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