Why Is an Epidemic of Blood-Sucking Bed Bugs Sweeping the Nation?

This story originally appeared on EcoSalon.


There’s a plague sweeping across the United States, and this one has nothing to do with sparkly vampires. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just confirmed – bed bugs are back!

Bed bugs are small insects that feed on sleeping animals – namely, us. They are expert hiders and tend to live within eight feet of where people sleep. The intrepid little suckers are making a comeback and it is leading to heightened levels of scratching and anxiety.

The blood-sucking insects were more common in the mid-twentieth century and were mostly eradicated by the end of the century. But experts think world travel and the lack of effective pesticides have led to their resurgence. DDT and its cancer-causing agents were credited with the initial demise of bed bugs. But DDT was banned in 1972, and so the bugs have returned.

Bed bugs are showing up across the country, but they have received the most attention for their appearances in New York City. From movie theaters to Upper East Side penthouses, bed bugs are carrying both their eggs and stigma all over the city. As the New York Times reports, “In the most recent fiscal year, which ended on June 30, the city’s 311 help line recorded 12,768 bedbug complaints, 16% more than the previous year and 39% above the year before.”

In 2009, one in fifteen New Yorkers had bed bugs. And the numbers are probably higher now. As one woman told the NY Times, “It’s like terrorism, you just cross your fingers and keep going.”

They are really difficult to stop. Bed bugs ride around in luggage, clothing seams, overnight bags, bedding, furniture, and basically anywhere else. They do not transmit disease, but they do leave nasty, itchy red welts all over you.

So yes, bed bugs bite the big one. But what’s to be done? Are there any viable eco-friendly solutions  - that is, treatments not involving pesticides that will make you grow a third ear? The CDC has a few recommendations. You can use a monitoring device – in NYC, many are turning to dogs to sniff out the pesky pests. The CDC also suggests removing as much clutter as possible to cut down on the bug’s hiding spaces. Vacuuming, steam cleaning, sealing cracks, and heat treatments may work. Some are even putting sticky-side-up masking tape around their beds in hopes to trap the insects.

Another natural remedy is sprinkling diatomaceous earth around corners and beds. Diatomaceous earth is “made from soil that is composed of little tiny fossils of single-celled algae. These have jagged edges that will cut an insect, causing them to gradually bleed to death if they crawl across it. They are too small to hurt a mammal, however, and they are non-toxic (it’s basically just dirt).” Okay, sure, it doesn’t sound like the most pleasant way to get rid of bed bugs. But remember, these critters survive by feasting on your blood.

The Bed Bugs Guide labels lavender oil and bleach as duds in terms of killing the insects. They also do not suggest trying to freeze or burn the animals out of your home by fiddling with the thermostat. It takes 120 Fahrenheit smoke them out, or 32 Fahrenheit to kill them with cold – for a couple of weeks.

And in the meantime? Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!

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