What you should know about insecticides & other methods for treating bed bugs

Property owners may purchase and apply certain pesticides to their own property, and tenants may do so (with certain exceptions) to their own apartments. Generally, owners and tenants may not, however, apply these products to common use areas or to the property of another person. A licensed pest control operator may perform these tasks more effectively, safely and legally. If one apartment or room is found infested, adjoining rooms and those immediately upstairs and downstairs should be inspected and managed, as appropriate.

Carefully read the label before applying any pesticide. Apply the product only if you fully understand the instructions, and if you have the appropriate training/certification and equipment. Note that although many kinds of insecticides may be purchased via the Internet, some States restrict the sale, shipment and use of certain products. Check with your State's pesticide regulatory agency if you have any questions.

Do NOT apply any insecticide or pesticide to mattresses or to surfaces that would be in direct contact with a person, unless the label instructions specifically state that the product can be applied in that manner. Some products can be harmful to people, pets the environment, and to your home. READ and UNDERSTAND the instructions and warnings on the label.

Insecticide formulations used to treat bed bug infestations consist mainly of the following:

Inert insecticidal dusts consist of a finely ground glass or silica powders (such as diatomaceous earth). These dry dusts may be applied in cracks and crevices, or blown into wall voids and into hollow tubular bed frames. Because these microscopic particles are hard and sharp, they may abrade the insect's cuticle, causing some direct damage and hastening water loss. Some dust formulations include other kinds of insecticides.

Contact insecticides are those that kill the bugs shortly after they come into direct contact with the product or its residue. Many of these consist of one or more kinds of pyrethoids (synthetic analogs of the extract of chrysanthemum flowers). These products tend to rapidly ‘knock down’ bugs that wander over or otherwise contact the insecticide. Some pyrethroids, however, can be irritating and repellent to many insects, and bed bugs may avoid treated surfaces. Furthermore, many populations of bed bugs are resistant to certain of the pyrethroids. Other contact insecticides contain chlorfenapyr, imidacloprid or yet other active ingredients that are less repellent than some pyrethroids, and which should be effective to combat bugs resistant to pyrethroids.

Insect Growth Regulators (IGR) affect the development and reproduction of insects. Although these products can be quite effective in reducing the population of the pests, they do not kill bugs quickly. Thus, pest control operators often use these products as a supplement to other kinds of insecticides.

Fumigation is a highly specialized process traditionally pursued to abate structural pests (such as termites and carpenter ants) in buildings. Increasingly, it is being used to battle bed bugs. Buildings to be fumigated are emptied of people and pets, and then 'tented' (enclosed and sealed within special tarps). A pesticidal gas is then infused into the building. Special monitors, inserted into wall voids and elsewhere, ensure sufficient exposure throughout the structure. After a defined interval, the gas is then vented to the atmosphere, and the tarps removed. Once the pesticidal gas concentration has fallen below detectable levels, the structure can then be reoccupied. Fumigant gases more readily penetrate wall voids, furniture and clothing than do insecticidal powders or liquids. Such gases, however, offer no residual benefits. Hence, whereas fumigation will quickly kill any insect or other creature within a treated structure, bed bugs and other pests may be reintroduced within the possessions of residents as they reoccupy the building.

Note that the fumigation methods described above are provided solely by specially licensed professional applicators. This is far different than the aerosol fogging devices (often called 'bug bombs') that can be purchased for a few dollars in retail markets. The droplets produced by aerosol foggers are far less likely than gases to penetrate cracks and crevices. Furthermore, such devices may pose a real risk to occupants as well as the dwelling being treated.

Certain fumigation companies now provide services to treat individual rooms or apartments. Some offer specialized moving vans or containers in which household and office furniture, clothing and other items may be treated. Such a strategy can allow one to retain one's possessions and move them to a new residence with much assurance that bed bugs or other pests will not stowaway in the items so treated.

Some items that can be sealed within plastic bags may be exposed to fumes of insecticidal vapors. Slow-release insecticidal strips (sometimes referred to as "no-pest strips" are impregnated with the insecticide dichlorvos. A strip of this material may be placed within the bag containing furniture, electronic devices or other items, taking care to protect the surface of the items to be treated. The bag is then sealed and exposed to the vapors for days to weeks, depending on the size of the bag and contents.

Non-insecticidal means

Chilling and freezing: As with all insects, bed bugs are cold blooded creatures. At temperatures below about 55F, bed bugs tend to become increasingly inactive. They may simply hide and wait within unheated dwellings from autumn through spring, even avoiding opportunities to take a blood meal. Hence, residents of infested dwellings may be spared bites until the indoor environment warms naturally in the springtime, or earlier as indoor heat sources activate the otherwise hibernating bugs.

Bed bugs and their eggs can succumb to freezing conditions, but success depends upon many factors. The colder the temperature (below freezing), and the longer these low temperatures are maintained, the greater the chances of killing bed bugs and their eggs. The bugs may die from damage resulting mainly from ice crystal formation within their tissues, and from water loss (as the humidity tends to be very low at such cold temperatures). Furniture and other items may be 'treated' by prolonged freezing, either in deep freezing warehouses or within unheated outbuildings. Do note that bed bugs are fairly hearty and are adapted to surviving for long intervals as they wait for their hosts to return from their migrations from warmer locations. Hence, this is far from an assured method. Whereas frozen items may, in many cases, be rendered free of live bed bugs, this effort will have been in vain if the same items are then carried back into an infested dwelling. The building, itself, may be 'treated' in this manner, but this is practical mainly in seasonally-used homes or cabins at high latitudes or altitudes. Such buildings must be properly prepared to avoid damage from frozen plumbing and other risks.

Some companies offer a service that relies upon the directed release of carbon dioxide (dry ice) 'snow' to freeze bed bugs and their eggs on furniture, around baseboards and elsewhere. Bugs and eggs directly contacted by the dry ice will likely be killed instantly. This method, however, may fail to penetrate well into cracks and crevices, into wall voids, and into other objects where bed bugs may be hiding. By itself, applications of dry ice in this manner should not be expected to eliminate a bed bug infestation from a home, apartment or other dwelling.

Drying: Bed bugs and their eggs will die as they lose water. Water loss can result from evaporation in low humidity environments, and may be hastened if their cuticle is damaged. Bed bugs restore their water balance solely by blood feeding.

Heat: At temperatures rise to 100F, bed bugs lose some vigor and their reproductive output becomes diminished. As temperatures rise further, they increasingly become burdened and their survival rate drops. Bed bugs and their eggs increasingly succumb as temperatures rise, and are maintained above, about 110 F. These lethal temperatures can be attained by use of industrial heaters operated by specialty companies. Success depends upon ensuring the lethal temperatures are attained within dwelling (including the wall voids), and amongst the contents therein. Small quantities of items (e.g. luggage) may be heated within a closed vehicle parked for many hours in full sunlight. This is practical only in summertime when the temperature within the vehicle attains temperatures lethal to bed bugs.

Steam: At the point of generation, water vapor produced by boiling water can instantly kill bed bugs and their eggs. Many kinds of household and industrial devices exist to generate steam, and some are sold or operated to direct a narrow stream of steam into cracks and crevices around a room, and onto parts of furniture. Whereas this method may kill bugs and eggs treated directly, it will not likely have any effect upon those in protective shelters.

Laundering of clothing (with or without bagging): Clothing that is suspected of harboring bed bugs or their eggs may be rendered free of bugs by washing in water that is sufficiently hot, or simply dried on high heat (with or without prior washing). Pressing with a hot iron will kill bugs instantly. Traditional dry cleaning methods should also kill bugs and their eggs.

A pest control operator may consider and propose a variety of other methods to manage bed bugs. An infestation that affects most or all units in a building may be best managed by treating the entire building. This requires close cooperation by managers and tenants, and may require the tenants to leave the building for a few hours or even several days. Only licensed and knowledgeable pest control operators should attempt such treatments.

Be aware that you may spread bed bugs from your own infested residence if you move to another apartment, home or hotel. Generally, it is best to leave your possessions in your home or apartment when it is treated. All food and eating utensils should be protected from insecticidal products. The product labels will offer additional guidance.

Some building managers have allowed infested apartments to remain vacant of tenants for extended intervals in attempts to ‘out wait’ or ‘starve’ the bed bugs. This strategy would rarely make good sense, as bed bugs are well adapted to patiently wait for the return of their hosts. Each bed bug needs just one full blood meal to develop to the next developmental stage, and they can readily wait many months between feeding opportunities. Under ideal conditions, adult bed bugs can survive for more than one year between meals. Thus, infested residences should be aggressively managed to eliminate bed bugs.

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