Is Propoxur the Way to Not Let the Bedbugs Bite?

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More than 80,000 chemicals are produced, used, and present in the United States. This is one of their stories.

When it comes to stopping bedbugs, Ohio wants to choose its poison.

The Return of the Bedbug (Unfortunately, Not a Summer Blockbuster)

After a decades-long absence from the American bed, bedbugs are back with a vengeance. From New York to Los Angeles, the little, nighttime, creepy-crawly bloodsuckers have been moving beyond household digs, spreading their wings (so to speak, as they are wingless, flightless critters) to hotels, movie theaters, offices, department stores. Wherever they can find little nooks to settle into.

Why the return? There are lots of hypotheses but no definitive reason so far. Some blame the ban on DDT. But others argue not likely -- bedbugs developed a resistance to DDT before the ban (see here, here, and here); and the chemical's phaseout in the 1970s has not led to a similar resurgence in mosquitoes or other pests. Others blame the comeback of bedbugs on their resistance to DDT's many substitutes (e.g., malathion, diazinon, lindane, chlordane, dichlorovos and now pyrethroids). And still others argue that the current recrudescence can be traced to bedbug-hitchhiking on foreign travelers' clothes and bags -- hence their initial appearance in major cities.

Alternative: Integrated Pest Management

EPA outlines how an integrated pest management plan can be used
effectively to get rid of infestations. These plans are designed to be
environmentally sensitive and to minimize cost and hazards while
utilizing bedbug life cycle and behavioral information to effectively
remove them. Get the details.

The Dope on These Blood-Sucking Freaks

Whatever the reason, bedbugs are no slumber party. Hiding in daytime in little creases, crevices and cracks in beds and walls, the little guys come out at night to feast on their slumbering human hosts' blood. They're insidious in their attacks -- injecting a local anesthetic before biting so as to avoid awakening their victims who can arise in the morning to find their sheets bloodstained and their bodies itchy and marked with bites. (More on bedbugs in this video.)

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that bedbugs do not appear to carry or transmit disease. Still, as the Centers for Disease Control warns, they can "cause a variety of negative physical health, mental health and economic consequences," ranging from mild to severe allergic reaction to the bites (including in rare cases anaphylaxis) as well as skin infections. Not to mention the anxiety, psychic terror and stigma associated with the little vampires.

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     Propoxur and bedbugs
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What's a Bedbug Host to Do?

For sure, if you've got 'em, you want to get rid of 'em. And there's the rub -- that's not so easily done.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 300 registered products are designed to fight bedbugs, and most can be used directly by consumers (e.g., Temprid SC, Phantom, and Nuvan Prostrips).

But some of these compounds are slow-acting -- and all require repeated treatments and a coordinated, no-holds-barred attack to rid every nook and cranny of the infested household of the vampiric pests. Such an offensive often requires that folks essentially live out of plastic bags for weeks to prevent re-infestation of clothes.

Don't want to do this by yourself? Hiring an exterminator's an option, but I've heard doing so can cost upwards of a thousand dollars.

Think you can wait them out -- maybe hole up with friends or move to your house in the Hamptons for the season? Won't work: While bedbugs typically feed on blood every five to ten days, they are capable of surviving more than a year without feeding.

Is There a Silver Bullet?

What a drag! At this point some of you are no doubt scratching your heads (figuratively, I hope), thinking: "Come on, there's gotta be an insecticide capable of offing these guys, and, if not, why can't the pointy-headed geniuses at the chemical companies make one?"

As it turns out, they have. It's called propoxur, a fast-acting insecticide used to kill fleas and ticks on pets, ants, etc., but it's not approved by EPA as an indoor residential spray.

In 2007 EPA accepted voluntary withdrawal of "all indoor spray uses for propoxur that may result in non-occupational exposure for children [pdf]," given that even low exposures have been linked to brain development problems in kids. Propoxur is a probable human carcinogen, based on bladder tumors in male rats, and EPA categorizes its acute toxicity as moderate to slightly toxic [pdf] depending on the route of exposure. But the World Health Organization reports that "propoxur is not considered mutagenic, embryotoxic, or teratogenic (WHO, 2003)." And according to the CDC, "propoxur does not accumulate in blood or tissues and is eliminated rapidly from the body." So there's not a universal consensus that the propoxur spray ban is called for.

Enter the state of Ohio and its budding bedbug population. While the state had previously been granted exemptions to use propoxur sprays indoors, last year EPA turned an exemption down due to concern that children's exposures would be "too high -- far too high -- and potentially expose children to nervous-system damage" given current formulations and intended-use plans. At the same time, EPA indicated that "further information on exposure rates or changes to the state's proposal for the way it would use Propoxur could result in approval."

But the folks from the Buckeye State are itching to blast their bedbugs into oblivion. The State House of Representatives has passed a resolution, by a vote of 97-0, asking Congress to urge EPA to approve an emergency exemption for propoxur. And U.S. Representative Jean Schmidt (R-OH) has introduced legislation that would force EPA to allow Ohio to use propoxur indoors.

So, when it comes to choosing between poison or infestation, it would appear that Ohio has chosen the former. I know what I'd choose. How about you?