Scores Got Sick, 1 Died Trying To Kill Bedbugs

Bedbugs don't make you sick. But the poisons used to kill them can.

A government study released Thursday found that dozens of Americans have fallen ill from the insecticides, and a North Carolina woman died after using 18 cans of chemical fogger to attack the tiny blood suckers.

Because many of the cases, including the lone death, were do-it-yourselfers who misused the chemicals or applied the wrong product, federal health officials are warning consumers to be careful and urging them to call professionals.

The report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 80 illnesses and one death linked to the insecticides over three years. Most of the cases were in New York City, the apparent epicenter of a recent U.S. bedbug comeback.

The CDC was able to get data from 12 states, and only seven had reports of such illnesses. One was New York, where bedbugs have become a highly publicized problem and where health officials have also been extra vigilant about reporting unusual chemical poisonings.

Investigators were relieved to find a relatively small number of cases.

"At this point, it's not a major public health problem," said Dr. Geoff Calvert, a CDC investigator who co-authored the study.

Bedbugs are wingless, reddish-brown insects that bite people and animals to draw blood for their meals. Though their bites can cause itching and welts, they are not known to spread disease.

"There's nothing inherently dangerous about bedbugs," said Dr. Susi Vassallo, an emergency medicine doctor who works at New York City's Bellevue Hospital Center and occasionally treats patients who report bedbug problems.

But the insects are a major hassle. In recent national surveys of exterminators, bedbugs were named the toughest pest to get ridcscsund of. They can hide for months, only come out at night and can be hard to spot with the human eye.

They are also creepy, provoking intense fear in the minds of many people unnerved by the threat that an almost invisible insect could emerge at night to drink their blood.

"Sometimes people get hysterical," said Theresa Braine, a New York City journalist who lived with bedbugs in her apartment for a year and now writes a weekly Internet column about the pests.

The CDC study was the first to look at the dangers of bedbug insecticides. Researchers reviewed reports from California, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Texas and Washington.

They counted 111 cases from 2003 through 2010. Most occurred in the last few years, when bedbug reports rose across the country. More than half were in New York City.

People suffered headaches, dizziness, breathing problems and nausea and vomiting. More than 80 percent of the illnesses were considered mild.

The one death was a 65-year-old woman from Rocky Mount, N.C., who had a history of heart trouble and other ailments.

In 2010, she and her husband used nine cans of insecticide fogger one day, then the same amount two days later, without opening doors and windows to air out their home afterward. She also covered her body and hair with another bedbug product, and covered her hair with a plastic shower cap.

Two other illnesses were carpet cleaners who had not been told the apartment had recently been treated with pesticides. Two more were emergency medical technicians who responded to a scene and were exposed to a white powder believed to be a pesticide.

CDC officials said they could not be absolutely certain that the insecticides caused every problem. For example, there was no record of an autopsy on the North Carolina woman. It's possible that some of the illnesses were coincidental to the insecticide exposure.

But it's also likely these kinds of illnesses are under-reported, Calvert said.

About 90 percent of the cases were linked to pyrethroids or pyrethrins, insecticides commonly used against bedbugs. Such products are not a health risk to most people but should still be applied by a trained exterminator, said Vassallo, who is also a toxicologist and a clinical associate professor at NYU Langone Medical Center.

But in some cases, an improper and more dangerous product was used. That happened in 2010 in Ohio, where an uncertified exterminator used malathion to rid an apartment of bedbugs, even though the chemical is never supposed to be used indoors. A couple and their 6-year-old child got sick.

CDC officials suggested people trying to rid their homes of bedbugs should first thoroughly vacuum all floors and furniture and wash linens.

If it doesn't work, call an exterminator to apply the chemicals, and then carefully follow their directions about re-entering the room and airing it out, they said.

Exterminators can be expensive. Braine said it cost her more than $1,000 for one treatment of her small Brooklyn apartment, which was only briefly successful. She has since moved to another place.

For products that are sold to the public, labeling could be a little better.

"We think it would be helpful if they were easier to read, understand, and better conveyed the message that the insecticide can be toxic and should be used with great care," Calvert said.

A spokeswoman for the National Pest Management Association, a trade group, said the industry is continually looking at improving its labeling. But some people just don't read labels.

For example, foggers are not recommended for bedbugs, she noted. And it appears some people use much more than is recommended.

"We live in a society where people believe that if a little bit is good, more is better," said the spokeswoman, Missy Henriksen. But sometimes more is dangerous, she added.


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Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
  • by Gotcha! on Sep 26, 2011 at 09:01 AM
    It most certainly is a word: Past participle, past tense of get
  • by not so Location: proper on Sep 26, 2011 at 08:22 AM
    to the person who wrote this story - GOT is not a word, you should say "scores became sick"
  • by exterminator on Sep 26, 2011 at 03:46 AM
    Getting rid of the mattress won't do the trick. Bedbugs are the very most difficult pest we have. Eradication is the only option but it takes a number of treatments and great attention to detail when doing the treatments. As such it's quite expensive. If you travel and suspect you have been exposed to them don't carry any luggage etc. into your home without a thourogh washing of clothes and treatment of luggage. It appears that middle eastern people have more trouble with them than most others. Due to many travelers back and forth to countries with high rates of infestation.
  • by Anonymous on Sep 25, 2011 at 05:56 PM
    I don't know what is worse. The bedbugs or chemicals. I get severe migraines anytime I'm exposed to chemicals. I had an employer insist I stay at work while I was 6 mos pregnant when they were using carpet glue in our enclosed office building. I also use plain baking soda and white vinegar to do my household cleaning. All I can say is a CHEAP mattress is better than an old ones with bedbugs. With all the free food being giving out. I can't imagine why we can't afford people with a real need and no money for a new mattress.
  • by e.loftin Location: Carteret County on Sep 25, 2011 at 09:39 AM
    All right !!!!!!!!!] All ready ! Enough about the d$% ! Bed bugs !!! There's serious murders of human lives going on here people and the longest coverage on your WITN site is about bed bugs ! Get real !!!!! Wash your sheets reg. Get a new mattress and move on with life !!! WITN....give more time and respect and coverage to those poor mothers who lost their daughters !!!!!!!!! Amen !!!!!!
  • by e.loftin Location: Carteret County on Sep 25, 2011 at 09:37 AM
    All right !!!!!!!!!] All ready ! Enough about the d$% ! Bed bugs !!! There's serious murders of human lives going on here people and the longest coverage on your WITN site is about bed bugs ! Get real !!!!! Wash your sheets reg. Get a new mattress and move on with life !!! WITN....give more time and respect and coverage to those poor mothers who lost their daughters !!!!!!!!! Amen !!!!!!
  • by NYC...Epicenter? on Sep 25, 2011 at 07:33 AM
    I'm not surprised. It's probably the epicenter of roaches in this country. It's the epicenter of mean, nasty, rude people, too.
  • by Do What on Sep 25, 2011 at 07:22 AM
    It is so routine for the CDC to try and dismiss their toxins.All in the name of the god of this world,m-o-n-e-y,money!!
  • by nolongeramazed Location: Jax on Sep 25, 2011 at 07:08 AM
    If you don't read the directions on using insecticides/pesticides, then you get what you get. Stupid is as stupid does! Or if you believe - Another person/people up for the Darwin award. :)
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