Picture of Karl Tupper

Karl Tupper

DDT for bed bugs?

It was only a matter of time. Lately newspapers have been filled with stories about the return of bed bugs, those nocturnal bloodsuckers that most of us had previously encountered only in our parents' nightly admonition to not let them bite. I grew up thinking that they weren't even real, just something adults made up along the lines of the bogeyman, monsters, and the tooth fairy. But they are indeed real, and they were once common in the U.S., until — as nearly every contemporary article about their resurgence points out — they were eliminated by the use of DDT just after WWII. So it was only a matter of time before people started blaming the current resurgence of bed bugs on EPA's ban on DDT.

Luckily, this erroneous claim has until recently been confined to anti-environmentalist authors on the fringes of the right-wing — those same folks who spread doubt about global warming and the health effects of toxic chemicals, many of whom also used to deny the harms of smoking. I'm thinking in particular about a column that appeared a month ago in the New York Post by Paul Driessen and a July 29th "Dispatch" on the American Council on Science and Health's website.

According to ACSH's Executive Director Dr. Gilbert Ross,

The resurgence of bed bugs … can be at least partially attributed to the prohibition of DDT and other highly effective pesticides. Unfortunately, because of the draconian restrictions instituted against use of the pesticides — due to superstition and chemophobia — bedbugs now have the upper foreleg here.

Driessen opines that:

New Yorkers want real solutions [to bed bugs], including affordable insecticides that work. Fear and loathing from decades of chemophobic indoctrination are slowly giving way to a healthy renewed recognition that the risk of not using chemicals can be greater than the risk of using them (carefully). Eco-myths are being replaced with more informed discussions about the alleged effects of DDT and other pesticides on humans and wildlife.

… and then spends the rest of the column railing against the EPA's ban on DDT. While he stops short of explicitly blaming the DDT ban for the resurgence of bed bugs, it's strongly implied throughout the column.

The Facts

There are a couple big problems with this narrative. One is that DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, but it wasn't until just a few years ago that bed bugs returned to our shores. Thirty years is an awfully long lag time. Another is that bed bugs still plague many parts of the world where homes are still sprayed with DDT for malaria control.

But what's most problematic is that bed bugs are resistant to DDT. So even if exterminators could have been using it all this time, it wouldn't have done anyone any good.

As early as 1948 DDT-resistant bed bugs were noted in Hawaii, and a 1958 paper in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization found resistance in bed bugs collected from sites around the world. A few years later, as documented in an excellent post at New York vs Bed Bugs, the U.S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency Medical Entomology Division was noting DDT-resistance emerging elsewhere in the U.S., and by 1982 the World Health Organization was reporting that bed bugs were resistant to DDT "almost everywhere." An EPA/CDC joint statement notes that bedbugs were "widely resistant" by the mid 1950's —15 to 20 years before the EPA banned domestic DDT use.

And these blood suckers haven't lost their resistance since we stopped using DDT. Two recent studies from the Journal of Agricultural and Urban Entomology and Pest Control Technology confirm as much. And by the way, there are more effective, less toxic solutions.

Driessen and ACSH have a long history of distorting the facts on DDT and other environmental issues, so it's not surprising that they've gotten the bedbug story wrong. What worries me is that this misconception will spread and will be used as a launchpad for jumping to another misguided conclusion: that DDT should be brought back to fight bed bugs.

In fact that's already happening. Just last month, the New York Times repeated the myth ("Bed bugs, once nearly eradicated, have spread across New York City, in part because of the decline in the use of DDT"), and the Washington Post recently made the same mistake. And now calls for bringing back DDT are starting to be heard in the blogosphere. Unfortunately, myths are easier to start than they are to correct — even when the facts are readily available. Let's hope the calls for renewed use of DDT against bed bugs fizzle in the blogosphere, and don't infest the mainstream media.

Picture of Karl Tupper

Karl Tupper

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