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Exposure Research

EPA provides citizens with information about how to protect themselves from bed bugs

Posted: January 20, 2011

Bed Bugs

Dan Stout, an EPA biological scientist and urban entomologist, specializes in understanding people’s exposures to pesticides as they move and change in the residential environment. Following the theme of pests and homes, Stout recently explained the resurgence of bed bug infestations, their living and feeding habits, and steps people can take to protect themselves.

Although many people are unfamiliar with this pest, Stout said their presence is being reported in all 50 states. The Associated Press identified the 10 most infested cities in August 2010, which started a flurry of other investigations and reports about the problem. Apparently the critters make good use of global transport systems, attach onto luggage, and find new homes with returning travelers. Not surprisingly these unwanted guests are spreading to other living areas such as college libraries and dorms, buses, subways, movie theaters, retail stores, and hospital rooms.

Where are they hiding? Although initial infestations typically start in bedding, Stout says “They are partial to cracks and crevices in all sorts of places indoors. And, to where materials form gaps, like around drain pipes or electrical plugs.” Other spots include baseboards, cracks in plaster, upholstered furniture cushions, folds of curtains and cloth-covered stereo speakers.

Bed bugs have even grabbed the attention of the U.S. Congress. In November 2009, a State and U.S. representative convened the first Congressional Bed Bug Forum, and subsequently introduced the Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite Act (H.R. 2248) into Congress. If passed, the act will provide training in pest management prevention and eradication techniques.

Efforts to eradicate bed bugs continue. The Second National Bed Bug Summit, hosted by several federal agencies including the EPA, will be held February 12 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

These small vermin are causing serious problems for pest control professionals who say that they are among the most difficult pests to eradicate. Portraying the significance of the problem, the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky conducted a survey in 2010 which reported that 95 percent of professional pest control companies had encountered bed bug infestations in the past year. Furthermore, U.S. consumers paid $258 million to treat buildings for bed bugs in 2009 alone.

"Females shed their skin after consuming human blood meals that are necessary to bring them to maturity. These nuisance critters can live for several weeks between feedings and females can deposit up to five eggs a day, and as many as 200 in a lifetime if well-fed," explains Stout, a lead scientist for the American Healthy Homes Survey published in 2009 — a nationwide survey of residential pest concentrations conducted by EPA in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Bed bug bites do not cause diseases in people, but they can lead to inflammation and possible secondary infection from excessive itching, Stout warned. Although bed bugs don’t pose a threat to public health or property, EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued a joint statement on integrated pest management approaches for controlling the pest. What’s the long-term fix for the bed bug dilemma? The National Pest Management Association says that specific solutions may take a decade of research, millions of dollars to accomplish, and could require a genetics-based approach to solve.

Stout suggests that the best scenario for now may be to focus on prevention. “People might want to reconsider using second-hand furniture without a thorough, and if possible professional, cleaning first. And, minimize interior clutter to reduce bed bug hiding places.” Another tip: “examine travel suitcases thoroughly, and unpack the contents directly into the washing machine.” He closes with a useful list of do’s and don'ts:

Top 5 ways to find out if bed bugs are nearby

  1. Check indoor cracks and crevices under low light conditions.
  2. Look for small blood drops in your home (wet or dry) or brown spots (fecal matter) because after engorging, bed bugs may excrete part of their meal which leaves visible stains.
  3. Sniff around. Musty, sweet, and the smell of raw beef-like odors may indicate infestation.
  4. Launder linens regularly and dry your clothing at the highest temperature possible.
  5. When lodging away from home, check bed crevices and folds, as well as furniture or fixtures near the bed. Keep your luggage off the floor. Use the rack in the room, the tub, or the dry-cleaning bag typically provided to inhibit infestation.

Top 5 actions to take if bed bugs are found

  1. Don't address the problem yourself. Contact building management or a licensed pest control professional with the tools and techniques to attack them where they live, without unnecessarily exposing occupants to pesticide residues.
  2. Vacuum floors, baseboards, and other bed bug friendly locations often. Discard the vacuum bag (or contents) immediately after it is collected.
  3. Periodically recheck the cracks, crevices, and other locations where bed bugs have previously been found to ensure that they have not returned.
  4. If you suspect a bite, contact a physician for authoritative conformation that it resulted from a bed bug.
  5. Limit visitors (or visits) until the problem is gone.

Visit EPA's Bed Bug Website for more information.

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