Bed Bugs? Chemical Pesticides Aren’t the Answer

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency called for a ban on the use of boric acid on carpets, saying the chemical is hazardous to children’s health. This was long overdue, as independent researchers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have for years warned us about the dangers of overusing pesticides to fight bed bugs.

The fact is that not only can chemical pesticides harm kids, both during and after application, but they’re also not the best answer to bed bug infestation.

Dini Miller, a professor of urban pest management and entomology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said boric acid is useless against bed bugs. “Boric acid must be consumed by the insect to work,” she told EWG. “Bed bugs feed only on blood, so it’s not an effective treatment.”

As for other chemicals, bed bugs are developing resistance to commonly used insecticides. But don’t despair. There are effective and widely available non-chemical alternatives.  

Roberto Pereira, a research scientist and specialist in urban entomology at the University of Florida, said in a phone interview that heat treatments are a practical strategy. “People have been using heat for quite some time to control pest infestations,” he said.

Heat treatments raise the temperature of the infested area to a level lethal to bed bugs. There are multiple methods of applying heat that may include steam treatments of individual items, contained heating units for furniture and belongings, and whole-room or whole-house heating. Heat treatments can greatly reduce or even eliminate the need for chemical pesticide applications, but must be done right to be effective.

When confronted with a bed bug infestation, it is important to find an experienced company with the technical expertise, proper equipment and safety protocols to guarantee a successful outcome. Heat sensors must be in place during treatment to ensure that all areas, even protected spaces where bed bugs hide, such as sofa cushions, mattresses and drawers, have reached 122 degrees, the level that kills bed bugs.

But not all infestations are suitable for heat treatments.

The size of the area, the condition of the home, the scope of the infestation, the overall treatment costs and the possibility of bugs returning to the treated area must all be considered. When the risk of re-infestation is high, home applications of pesticide-grade diatomaceous earth or similar materials may be necessary. These applications are typically done in cracks and crevices, so that people, especially children, don’t inhale the materials. Miller cautioned that some diatomaceous earth products contain low-grade materials that can cause respiratory problems and lung damage if they’re applied improperly and inhaled.

Public health experts advise against do-it-yourself chemical- and heat-based bed bug control. “Most individuals don’t have the knowledge to use these products in the way that is both most efficient and safe, especially when dealing with bed bugs,” said Pereira.

The good news is that all homeowners and renters can take measures to prevent full-scale infestations or re-infestations. The first step is to organize, clean and declutter the spaces where the bed bugs may hide. If any bed bugs or eggs are found, experts recommend disposing of them in a bowl of rubbing alcohol or soapy water.

No matter how persistent the problem is, don’t panic.

“Bed bug infestations aren’t comfortable, but these pests aren’t known to transmit disease,” said Pereira. “It’s not the end of the world!”

Read EWG’s tips for identifying and preventing bed bug infestations in your home. And check out the “Let’s Beat the Bed Bug!” website from the University of Minnesota, with great, practical advice about what to do and what not to do when tackling bed bugs.

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