Unfair fight; As bed bugs spread, the best weapon against them should be unleashed

Columbus Dispatch (Editorial)
Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bedbugs are infesting more and more places, causing misery for people across Ohio. But a federal agency still refuses to let exterminators use the one pesticide proved to work.

The pesticide Propoxur kills bedbugs on the first try where others fail. Susan Jones, an entomologist for Ohio State University, illustrated that point vividly last week for an Ohio House committee. She passed around to lawmakers two clear containers, one with Propoxurtreated bugs and the other with bugs treated with the product that is currently permitted for use by exterminators.  

Predictably, the Propoxur bugs were dead and the others were still alive and kicking.

The House committee then unanimously approved House Resolution 31, asking the federal Environmental Protection Agency to allow emergency use of the chemical, which hasn't been used residentially for more than a decade. The full House will hear the measure and vote on it. A resolution doesn't have any force of law except to show that lawmakers support this action.

Bedbugs began their resurgence several years ago. Reports of infestations in Franklin County nearly tripled last year, to 6,900 reports, from 2,200 in 2009. And that's only the infestations residents reported to county health officials, city code enforcers, social-service agencies and a few exterminating companies.  

Bedbugs are notoriously difficult to root out and kill. When mapping the bedbug genome, OSU scientists found recently that the current variety of bug plaguing Ohio has begun producing a protein that helps it to safely excrete most poisons.

Some Ohioans can afford repeated visits from exterminators who apply less-effective   chemicals or extreme heat to kill the bugs. The people who are left to suffer are those who can't afford this, especially seniors in low-income housing. They even abandon their homes and belongings, as these bloodsuckers cover them in itchy welts, sometimes causing allergic reactions and secondary infections.

The EPA doesn't have hard figures on Propoxur's toxicity for humans, so to be safe, it heavily overestimates the danger the chemical might pose. But the only reason the EPA lacks that information is that the manufacturer decided in 2006 not to reapply for permission for indoor use of Propoxur, even though it had been used in homes since the 1960s and remains the active ingredient in many flea and tick collars for household pets.  

The suffering caused by the bugs, and the lengths to which people will go for relief, should be reason enough for the feds to grant the state an emergency waiver over a short period, allowing professional exterminators to apply this chemical in a safe way.

The alternative is that desperate people take unsafe steps to solve their problem, especially the poor. They sometimes hire questionable exterminators to spread who-knows-what all over their house, possibly harming their children and pets. That very scenario occurred near Cleveland in the mid-1990s, when dozens of low-income families relied on a scammer to kill their cockroaches, and he applied an outdoor agricultural pesticide that causes central-nervous-system damage.  

Or as one Ohio exterminator, Andrew Christman, testified on Wednesday, "I even heard of a family recently who rubbed gasoline on their skin so they could sleep at night."

Could Propoxur, when applied properly, really be any more dangerous than measures like that?