Scores Got Sick, 1 Died Trying to Kill Bed Bugs
Wall Street Journal
Thursday, September 22, 2011
ATLANTA - Worried about bedbugs? Maybe you should be more
concerned about the insecticides used to get rid of them.
A government study counted one death and 80 illnesses linked to
bedbug insecticides over three years. Many were do-it-yourselfers
who misused the chemicals or used the wrong product. And most of
the cases were in New York City.
The study released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention is the first to look at the issue.
The CDC was able to only get data from seven states, including
New York, where bedbugs have become a highly publicized problem and
where health officials have also been extra vigilant about unusual
Investigators said they didn't know what to expect, but were
relieved to see a relatively small number of cases.
"At this point, it's not a major public health problem," said
Dr. Geoff Calvert, a CDC investigator who co-authored the
Bedbugs are wingless, reddish-brown insects that bite people and
animals to draw blood for their meals. Though their bites can cause
itching, they have not been known to spread disease.
"There's nothing inherently dangerous about bedbugs," said Dr.
Susi Vassallo, an emergency medicine doctor who works at New York
City's Bellevue Hospital Center and occasionally deals with
patients talking about bedbugs.
Vassallo, who is also a toxicologist, said most of the
insecticides used against bedbugs are not a health risk but should
still be applied by a trained exterminator.
The CDC looked at reports from California, Florida, Michigan,
North Carolina, New York, Texas and Washington, the only states
that tracked such illnesses. The study counted 111 cases in the
years 2003 through 2010. Most occurred in the last few years, when
bedbug reports rose across the country. More than half were in New
Most were people with headaches or dizziness, breathing problems
or nausea and vomiting.
The one death in 2010 was a 65-year-old woman from Rocky Mount,
N.C., who had a history of heart trouble and other ailments. She
and her husband used nine cans of insecticide fogger one day, then
the same amount two days later, without opening doors and windows
to air out their home afterward. She also covered her body and hair
with another bedbug product, and covered her hair with a plastic
CDC officials said it's not clear that the insecticides were a
definite cause of illness in each of the cases, and it's possible
some were coincidental.
About 90 percent of the cases were linked to pyrethroids or
pyrethrins, common insecticides sometimes used against bedbugs. But
in some cases, an incorrect and more dangerous product was used.
That happened in Ohio last year, when an uncertified exterminator
used malathion - which should never be used indoors - to rid an
apartment of bedbugs. A couple and their 6-year-old child got
The report was released through a CDC publication, Morbidity and
Mortality Weekly Report.