For years, the hospitality industry has been fighting a chemical war against bed bugs. Now, with the growing menace of pesticide-resistant bed bugs and increasing documentation of human injury from harsh chemicals, the question to consider is, “Are we using the right tactics?” Is a chemical war really the best choice when it is proving increasingly less effective and when non-chemical, heat-based treatments—like structural pasteurization—as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are available to mitigate these concerns?
Chemical pesticides—historically the first choice in killing bed bugs—are cited as the cause of illness to human occupants and pest control professionals. According to the September 23, 2011 edition of the CDC's Prevention of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (volume 60, No. 37), acute bed bug pesticide-related illnesses have been reported in at least seven states, including New York, California, Florida, Michigan, Texas, Washington and North Carolina—with one fatality reported due to pesticide poisoning.
But those made ill by pesticides in the CDC report are likely just a fraction of those who are ultimately affected by exposure to these chemicals. Many may overlook minor symptoms or chalk them up to other causes, and chemical exposure is often cumulative, with an extended latency period before symptoms exhibit years—even decades—later.
Pesticide Health Hazards
By their nature, bed bug pesticides are toxic. While commonly used pyrethrins are only slightly acutely toxic, they are a sensitizer/irritant considered to be carcinogenic. Permethrin is moderately acutely toxic, possibly cancer-causing, and can cause endocrine disruption. Propoxur, which is not registered by the EPA for bed bug control but has been used illegally by some pest control companies, is highly toxic and probably cancer-causing, with reproductive effects, neurotoxicity, and the potential for kidney and liver damage.