By Harry Katz
While my short term memory today is bad, I can still recall the acrid smell of roasting bedbugs in bedsprings with a candle when I was a youngster in the 1920’s. Candling bedsprings was what my mom learned when she lived in Russia at the turn of the century. We also put bottle caps filled with an oil of some type under the bed legs.
Many years later, in the 1940’s, when I was an exterminator (no “pest controllers” or “pest management” people then), bedbugs were endemic with the general public. The bugs were picked up in cloak rooms at school, at work, in theater seats, streetcar seats, etc, etc. Pyrethrum sprays, oil based, were available--no residuals, no EPA.
While treating a housing development, I once found a bedbug that was twice the normal size. I gave it to my friend Arnold Mallis in his Gulf Oil lab at nearby Harmarville, PA, who sent it to his friend Dr. L.Usinger in CA. Sure enough it was a bedbug based on the chromosomal pattern. Dr. Usinger wrote asking for more specimens. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any more so apparently I did too good of a job and as a result I potentially missed out on having a strain of bedbugs named after me. See Mallis’ Handbook on Pest Control, 7th Edition, p324.
Before the BC (Before Carson) Era, mostly oil based DDT and pyrethrum sprays were marketed in stores for bedbugs. Pest controllers, however, used a variety of toxicants. NPCA recommended 2% malathion for DDT resistant bedbugs. Others recommended diazinon, lindane,, methoxychlor, thanite, even deldrin. All cautioned not to spray the mattress. I used lindane at 0.1% with pyrethrums to kill the DDT resistant bedbugs. I got best control by using the dust made by mixing two desiccants, silica aerogel with diatomaceous earth. The DE tamed down the fluffy silica aerogel. I don’t know if the labels would permit this today, but this was permitted then. I sprinkled three tablespoons of the dust on the mattress, and lifted the sheet to distribute the dust. This is an excellent residual to control the emerging nymphs from the eggs laid in the mattress tufts. Heat from the body speeds the hatching time. I used the DDT spray in baseboards, wall crevices, perimeter, bed stands, furniture near the bed. (Never on the mattresses or sofas.)
If propoxur aerosol was available now for bedbugs, as it is available for other crawling insects, we would indeed have an excellent addition to our arsenal to control the bedbug, but not on mattresses or sofas. By today’s standards, our industry practices in the early days were primitive. I vividly recall ads with “Confidential Service” in phone books. Some talked about ‘secret formulas’. One promoted his barium carbonate rat bait as a virus. Some PCOs deliberately left streaks of sodium fluoride on the basement walls, and a smelly pesticide to prove that they did something, otherwise they would not get paid.
In the 50’s, several men died when they ate bread at a Salvation Army free food shelter in Pittsburgh, PA. The baker mistook white sodium fluoride for a bread ingredient. That is when the first law regulating pesticides was passed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: sodium fluoride products had to be colored blue. I recall one old timer brought me an insect to identify. It was a subterranean termite. Another old timer became bald when he inhaled fumes from a solution of thallium sulphate that he was cooking with bait for rats. These excesses ended to a large extent because of Rachel Carson’s epic book, Silent Spring, which was a major motivating force behind the creation of the modern environmental movement, and caused the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency which promulgated regulations that were necessary to place controls on the sale and use of toxicants.
We truly grew as an industry and I believe that requiring companies to be tested and licensed brought this about. However, we have to remember that the first licensing was not introduced into the pest control industry by the EPA. Testing and licensing was first introduced into pest control in cities like Cleveland, Ohio by the pest control industry itself, years before the EPA.
In her book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson described how a Penn State Researcher lost the sight of one eye while experimenting with the first batch of chlordane (1068) that was produced. She neglected to mention that the offending contaminant had been removed from the chlordane before it was marketed.
I also recall my friend Carroll Weil telling me that he was appointed to Congress’ MRAK Commission to investigate demands to outlaw DDT. Carroll was President of the Toxicological Society of America and a Fellow at the prestigious Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, PA. He found that the data which the Committee used was badly flawed. The mice that they used for testing were specially bred to develop tumors . Even a benign tumor is reason to cancel a registration of a pesticide with the USDA. Carroll argued with the anti DDT members until late in the night. Finally, they said they would publish an addendum, and he capitulated, making it unanimous. Because the United States cancelled DDT registration, it was not available anywhere. Millions of natives in Third World countries died from malaria because they were not able to spray a few ounces of DDT solution on inside of their huts. Rachel Carson wrote the book to save the lives of many people from deadly toxicants. An unintended consequence was the death of millions to malaria.
At a hearing before an EPA appointed Judge to determine the future of DDT registration, after hearing lengthy talks by top scientists for many days, the Judge ruled that there was not sufficient reason to cancel the registration. Despite this, the head of the EPA, Ruckelshaus, ruled that DDT was in fact a carcinogen, overruling his own Administrative Law Judge.
This originally appeared in the May Issue of the Ohio Pest Management's quarterly newsletter, The Standard. RK