EPA seeks to battle biting bedbugs

ARLINGTON, Va. -- "Don't let the bedbugs bite."

Doesn't seem so bad in a bedtime rhyme, but it's becoming a big problem now that the nasty critters are invading hospitals, college dorms and even swanky hotels.

With the most effective pesticides banned, the government is trying to figure out how to respond to the biggest bedbug outbreak since World War II. This week, the Environmental Protection Agency held the first-ever bedbug summit.

Bedbugs live in the crevices and folds of mattresses, sofas and sheets. Then, most often before dawn, they emerge to feed on human blood.

Faced with rising numbers of complaints to city information lines and increasingly frustrated landlords, hotel chains and housing authorities, the EPA hosted the two-day summit, which began Tuesday.

Organized by one of the agency's advisory committees, the conference drew about 300 participants to a hotel in Arlington. An Internet site notes that the hotel has had no reports of bedbugs.

In Southern Nevada, bedbug complaints have increased over the past two years, said Steven Goode of the Southern Nevada Health District. About two to three complaints a week were being reported at times in 2007; this year, Goode said, the complaints are "nearer to four a week."

The majority of the complaints are made by residents of apartments and extended-stay properties such as motels.

"More from apartments than motels, though," Goode said.

Only three complaints have been filed this year by guests of Strip resorts, he said.

From 2004 to 2008, about 10 to 15 complaints were made each year by Strip resort guests, Goode said.

"That's really not very many when you consider the number of people who visit here each year," he said.

"Bedbugs are good hitchhikers. They can come into a place on luggage and on clothes."

Tourism experts estimate that nearly 40 million people visit Las Vegas annually.

One of the problems with controlling the reddish-brown insects, according to researchers and the pest control industry, is that there are few chemicals on the market approved for use on mattresses and other household items that are effective at controlling bedbug infestations.

Unlike roaches and ants, bedbugs are blood feeders and can't be lured by bait. It's also difficult for pesticides to reach them in every crack and crevice they hide out in.

"It is a question of reaching them, finding them," said Harold Harlan, an entomologist who has been raising bedbugs for 36 years, feeding them with his blood.

The EPA, out of concern for the environment and the effects on public health, has pulled many of the chemicals that were most effective in eradicating the bugs in the U.S. At the same time, the appleseed-sized critters have developed a pesticide resistance because those chemicals are still in use in other countries.

Increasing international travel has helped them to hitchhike into the U.S.

"One of our roles would be to learn of new products or safer products," said Lois Rossi, director of the registration division in the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs. "What we are concerned about is that if people take things into their own hands and start using pesticides on their mattresses that aren't really registered for that, that's a problem."

The EPA is not alone in trying to deal with bedbugs An aide to Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said the congressman plans to reintroduce legislation next week to expand grant programs to help public housing authorities cope with infestations. The bill will be called the "Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite Act."

"It was clear something needed to be done," said Saul Hernandez, Butterfield's legislative assistant.

Bedbugs are not known to transmit diseases. But their bites can cause infections and allergic reactions. The insects release an anticoagulant to get blood flowing, and they also excrete a numbing agent so their bites don't often wake their victims.

The urban poor are often hardest hit. Extermination can cost $400 to $900.

Dini Miller, an entomologist and bedbug expert at Virginia Tech, said that until 2001, she saw bedbugs only on microscope slides dating from the 1950s. Now she gets several calls and e-mails a day from people at their wits' end.

Because the registration of new pesticides takes so long, one thing the EPA could do is approve some pesticides for emergency use, Miller said.

Another tactic would be to screen pesticides allowed for use by farmers to see if they are safe in household settings.

Representatives of the pest control industry will push for federal funding for research into alternative solutions, such as heating, freezing or steaming the bugs out of bedrooms.

Review-Journal writer Paul Harasim contributed to this report.