What's the Government Doing to Combat Bedbugs?

Photos: Insect Inspection David Scharf

The resurgence of bedbugs, the primitive pests that have been the scourge of sleeping for millennia, has been blamed on many things, most recently on left-leaning earth lovers banning effective pesticides. Regardless of what is to blame for their resurgence, everyone wants to know what is being done to get rid of them. And who do we ask when we have seemingly unanswerable and sometimes rhetorical questions? That's right, the government.

In April 2009, the EPA hosted a "Bed Bug Summit," where public-health officials, government agents, pest control experts, and others gathered to address the issue long before it blew up in the media this summer. Attendees discussed issues including research on the bugs, the role government should play in fixing the problem, educating consumers, proper training to deal with the pests, and the appropriate roles for professionals such as property managers to play, according to the participant recommendations published after the summit.

A senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that since the 2009 summit, many of the recommendations have been set in motion. Channels of communication have been opened between several government agencies that have stakes in solving the problem. The Department of Defense might be the most surprising participant in the group, which has no formal title but is known as the Bed Bug Interagency Task Force, according to the EPA official.

The resurgence we are seeing is partly because of changes in pest control methods that were used mainly to control cockroaches and ants, but which also played a part in killing or preventing bedbugs, said Steven Jacobs, an urban and public health etymologist at Penn State University. "The thought is that we had inadvertently controlled bed bugs while we were controlling other insects in homes," he said.

Jacobs said certain pesticides were banned in part because of the public's perception of their health risks. "Popular opinion presses government agencies," he said. He added that he believes increased research is needed on the subject, because the nearly half-century absence of the bugs caused quite a lapse. "We haven't seen this bug in 50 years so we need more studies, more extensive studies."

A senior official from the EPA said research is being done, some just outside Washington, and that agencies such as the Department of Agriculture are very focused. Other agencies involved in the Bed Bug Interagency Task Force are the departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and of course the USDA and the EPA, according to the EPA official.

In keeping with recommendations made by participants in last year's summit, the EPA official said, research and other efforts to learn how to manage the insects, which have been identified as priorities, are being funded with existing resources, and that even within the last year the manpower assigned to the issue has grown.

"For us, success is going to be effective control of the bedbugs," the EPA official said, adding that an evaluation of that success will ultimately come from Americans' satisfaction with the results. "It's not going to be easy, but we're committed."