Thursday, May 20, 2010

What Congress Can Do About Bed Bugs

This first appeared in The Standard, the quarterly newslettter of the Ohio Pest Management Association. 

Bed bugs, a bloodsucking pest virtually eliminated in the United States only 20 years ago, are now found with increasing regularity throughout the United States and have become an epidemic in certain areas of the country such as Boston, Cincinnati, Columbus, Las Vegas, Louisville, Newark, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle.

Experts cite three primary reasons for the resurgent bed bug population:

- increased international travel,

- loss of pesticide products that effectively controlled bed bugs, and

- more targeted, precise application techniques.

Experts also believe that the problem will continue to grow as more and more bed bug strains develop resistance to some of the most widely used pesticide products.

The lack of a “silver bullet” product to manage bed bugs means that multiple treatments are usually necessary to gain effective control. Multiple treatments and non-chemical methods are costly and unaffordable for persons living on lower and fixed incomes. Oftentimes they are forced to throw out mattresses, furniture and other valuable possessions they lack the means to replace. Moreover, this scenario is ripe for pesticide misuse, similar to the situation that occurred in the mid to late 1990s when unlicensed applicators in several states applied an agricultural pesticide indoors to control ants and cockroaches, displacing thousands of lower income persons and costing the federal government approximately $75 million to clean up.

Without federal intervention, the crisis will continue to grow and diminish Americans’ quality of life. Options that Congress should consider to address the crisis are discussed below.

Provide Additional Resources and Direct CDC to Provide Leadership

Additional resources are needed to help combat bed bug problems that plague lower or fixed income housing. Congress can provide much needed relief by directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to divert existing resources to fight bed bugs in lower and fixed income housing. Specifically, Congress should direct EPA and HUD to make funds available from the Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program, Environmental Justice Small Grants and other programs to states, local governments and local housing authorities to combat bed bugs. To ensure that the funds are used effectively, eligibility should be limited to entities that adopt and implement a bed bug action plan and require treatments to be performed by state certified pesticide applicators, trained in effective pest management strategies.

Congress should direct the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to better assist states and local governments in controlling bed bugs by acknowledging the seriousness of the problems associated with such infestations. Unfortunately, CDC officials have largely resisted officially recognizing the gravity of bed bug infestations. Instead, they stress that bed bugs are incapable of spreading disease and have shown little concern for the allergic reactions, open scabs and sores, sleeplessness and emotional trauma caused by bed bugs. CDC’s increased leadership would permit state and local governments to take more forceful action in the fight against bed bugs.

Authorize Research

The pest management industry has funded a number of bed bug related research projects and will continue doing so. EPA’s continuing pesticide reevaluation program will likely lead to the loss of additional products. Because of the relatively small size of the bed bug product market and the high cost of developing new products, there may not be sufficient incentives for the private sector to develop new, safe and effective bed bug control products. Congress could rectify this problem by establishing a research program to help develop effective methods of controlling bed bugs and other resurgent household pests. The program could be housed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s IR-4 program or Agricultural Research Service, in conjunction with land grant universities with structural pest management expertise.

Additional Criteria in Approving Pesticide Products

When EPA registers new products, alters or reevaluates the registration of existing products or considers petitions for emergency exemptions, it should consider factors such as (1) the impact on Americans’ “quality of life” when residential and other pests are not able to be controlled; (2) the risks that arise when consumers resort to over applying ineffective products or using unregistered products or other homemade remedies; and (3) the opportunity for the proliferation of inefficacious or “snake-oil” type products when affordable, effective products do not exist.

In a related issue and to discourage the marketing of inefficacious products by unscrupulous companies, Congress could require efficacy data for all pesticide products claiming to control bed bugs, to provide assurances to the professional industry, consumers, and federal and state regulatory officials that such products work as advertised. This is especially important for bed bug control products because it is not immediately obvious when a product does not work.

A Concerted Federal Effort is Needed to Combat the Crisis

EPA should create an advisory committee under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, chaired by the Assistant Administrator, advising the Agency on strategies it may adopt to effectively combat bed bugs. Members of the committee would be drawn from state and local health and housing officials, pest management industry representatives, and state pesticide regulatory agencies

Congress should require the Secretaries of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development and EPA Administrator to report to Congress on steps the federal government could take to combat the bed bug epidemic.

Congress should demand greater intergovernmental cooperation and coordination by instructing the Secretaries of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development and EPA Administrator to take measures to coordinate the federal government’s response to the crisis.

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