Future 86, New York, USA
December 10
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I'm a reasonably good writer with an Internet connection. I'm rather opinionated on certain topics. I live in a town whose primary function is as a rest stop at the intersection of two interstate highways. I have too many radios! All postings in this blog are Creative Commons The Fuddler. Non-comm, attrib, no derivs.


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DECEMBER 2, 2010 12:56AM

An Idea Whose Time May Have Come Again?

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For those of you who haven't yet heard, like economic disaster another unwelcome phenomenon from the distant past has made a comeback.

I refer of course to bedbugs.

The little bastards only existed in biology and pest-control industry literature when I was growing up. I only got to read anything with any detail in it about their behavior in the 1970s when I saw an article in a magazine (I've forgotten which one. Scientific American perhaps?). It described in lurid detail the revolting process by which these little hellions mate (the male basically uses its reproductive organ to punch a hole in the female's abdomen, which has no reproductive orifice. See? I told you it was gross!).

Now they're showing up not just where you'd expect to find bugs (seedy apartments and such) but in $3000-a-night hotel rooms, posh boutiques and upscale clothing shops in major cities.

This is not good.

Like a lot of as-yet-uninfested (as far as I know) Americans, I've gotten paranoid. An apartment building not far from mine was recently treated for bedbugs. One of my great joys in life is thrift-shopping and garage sales. I've declared an indefinite ban on purchasing used bedding, draperies and furniture. I've passed up luggage in excellent shape on the off-chance that unwelcome travelers might be lurking within. Used clothing, when I do buy it, leaves the store in a sealed plastic bag (which goes straight into the outside trash can once emptied) and goes straight into the wash, including a tumble in the dryer. Yet even with these precautions, I've begun to feel much the way a regular in a singles-bar must have felt back when news of the AIDS epidemic went mainstream. An infestation would mean getting preyed upon night after night by vermin and therefore getting little or no sleep. I'm afraid that I might have to throw out not just the bed and sofa but every other stick of furniture I own (Can you sleep on a bare floor? Didn't think so!). As if that weren't enough, the new strains of the bugs are apparently resistant to commonly-used household pesticides.

Which brings me to my main point.

Bedbugs were wiped out in the 1940's and 50's by the pesticide DDT. It's extremely effective and has a fairly long half-life. Trouble is, it also had some fairly troubling side-effects upon the environment. Under pressure from the scientific and environmental communities, it was banned in 1972. While I believe it would be a very, very long stretch to say that the bugs' return was due to the banning of DDT, I think it's time to reconsider this proven pest-control agent in light of the unprecedented resurgence of this scourge. No, I don't believe like the couple in the video that DDT is safe enough to nonchalantly ingest  (although I understand there was a mixed drink which called for it!). No, I don't believe the reasons for its banning didn't have merit. Like any other remedy, the benefits must be weighed against the likely risks and side-effects.

On that note, I believe that many of the ill effects attributed to DDT may have been due in no small part to indiscriminate, careless application. To illustrate my point, using antibiotics to treat an ear infection is an appropriate use for them. Force-feeding them willy-nilly to factory-farmed livestock being raised under unsanitary conditions so that they don't literally rot on the hoof, not so much. Likewise, hosing food crops down with massive doses of DDT so that they looked perfect, like wax fruit, when brought to market was an inappropriate use of this powerful chemical. Using it to beat back the resurgence of a major threat to public health and welfare might, just might be appropriate.

 And if not DDT, then what else could be used which would be as effective?

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The thought makes me shudder - Ack, bedbugs! I think NY has them the worst. Here in LA it's not so bad, but I guess time will probably fix that. Ugh. The DDT argument is interesting, and I remember reading a similar argument regarding malaria and DDT, that it's the very best thing out there for killing the malaria mosquitos and sometimes they use it to treat bed netting, but the ban makes it difficult. It's probably time for some enterprising grad student to do the studies to determine if there are useful alternatives or if there is any method or level of safe usage for the old standby.
Excellent post. I have been silently worrying about those little critters myself. I think you make a valid point; we should at least revisit the efficacy of DDT. Sheesh. Like we don't have enough to worry about!

I think perhaps we need to find a less toxic means of eliminating both bedbugs and cockroaches (shudder).
I'm all for that, MrsRaptor. There are actually alternative treatments which use things like extreme heat and cold rather than traditional pesticides (I've heard of one such treatment for termites using I guess liquid nitrogen called "Coldwave"). And while I'm all for such methods being used wherever possible, sometimes they're either not appropriate or effective.

In other words, I think we might want to hold The Bomb (so to speak) as a last resort rather than banning it outright as we've done.
I found a rather interesting article about bedbug remediation just now.