A Less Toxic Fight When Bed Bugs Bite?

  • The type of evil creep that has our Allegheny Front host considering serious chemical elimination.

February 23, 2013

You are about to read something that will make your skin itch. Consider yourself warned. I have bed bugs. How does this fit into The Allegheny Front? Well, when your foot is covered with welts so itchy that you crave amputation, you, too, might consider giving the stink eye to old Rachel Carson and searching for DDT on the black market.

I didn’t feel this way at the beginning of my saga. A few weeks after I moved into an apartment, I noticed bites on my back and legs. I told the building superintendent--who called an exterminator. I dreaded the impending exterminator’s visit. It reminded me of when I was a kid living with a dog and two cats. My mom had Orkin spray our baseboards preventatively for fleas. I remember finding it troubling that a man was carrying a big tank around the house and pumping who-knows-what. And I was disgusted by the smell, subtle though it was. So I was relieved when my apartment’s exterminator ended up NOT spraying. He lifted my old love seat and eyed the wood and fabric seams. He didn’t see the tell tale spots of a bed bug infestation. So he skipped the chemicals. I liked his judiciousness and felt hopeful that my problem would magically pass.

A week or so went by bite-free. Then one Sunday my boyfriend and I sank into my loveseat and watched a movie. The next day I realized that my complacency was a mistake. While I snacked on cheese during an Annette Bening film, a bug or two snacked on me.

Since I do, after all, host this radio show that explores environmental health risks, I have been seeking out the least toxic solution on my own--least toxic for me, that is, because I will KILL those little creepers without looking back. Even though part of me can’t help but admire their evolutionary genius. Not only do they suck blood. They inject an anesthetic so I can’t feel them at work, and an anticoagulant to keep their meal flowing. But having them as housemates carries some serious repercussions. I don’t sleep well knowing they might be paying a visit. I don’t have friends over.  I don't tell many people about the problem because they edge away from me when I do.

And though I crave a quick fix like DDT, truth is, pesticide resistance is, according to EPA, believed to be one of the reasons that bed bugs have re-emerged as a problem. The Centers for Disease Control says that the bugs actually were resistance to DDT as far back as the 1950s in the U.S. The least toxic solution may be long and drawn out. Something called diatomaceous earth is my number one weapon. It’s the fossilized remains of a hard-shelled algae, ground up and sold as an off-white powder similar in feel to talc.

It’s used indoors to get rid of not just bed bugs, but ants, fleas, and any exoskeleton critters that wear their hard body parts on the outside unlike you and me. I’ve been dusting my apartment with the diatomaceous earth, which clogs up bugs’ exoskeletons and cuts them. I put duct tape over the electrical outlets in case they’re in the walls. But every week or so I still get a bite. So then it’s down the four floors of the building to the laundry room to hot water wash and dry my sheets, blankets, pillows, and all my clothes. Again. And to call in to work late so I can vacuum the apartment, carefully taking the vacuum down four floors and out to the icy sidewalk to put the vacuum bag in plastic before it goes in the dumpster.

Again. I still haven’t called the exterminator back, but I reserve the right to do so. Like I said, I literally dream at night about more destructive and quick methods. But I’m trying to look at this like my experience working on an organic farm one year. Instead of using herbicides, we crawled around what seemed like infinite rows of carrot sprouts pinching away weeds. Then and in this case, the least toxic solution is often the most physically laborious, the most time-consuming, sometimes even the most costly. But in the end, it works. And when I finally feel secure the bugs are gone and I can have friends over, I won’t feel nervous when their kids roll around the floor and giggle.