Bed bug advocate or bed bug victim? A response to the LA Times story

I spoke to P.J. Huffstutter of the Los Angeles Times for this story and must clarify and correct the statements attributed to me, from a familiar position of regret.

I am not still fighting a bed bug infestation, although other members of our group certainly are, and for much longer than anyone should. My bed bug infestation was in the end, long ago, finally eradicated by a good NYC pest control company. But, of course, bed bugs certainly left their mark on me or you would not be reading this and this group would not exist.

A personal bed bug experience is emotionally draining and exhausting, but these days if I am emotionally drained and exhausted it’s because of the specific and unimagined difficulties (and joys) of doing grassroots advocacy work on bed bugs in this city and, most of all, because of the unnerving stories of New Yorkers struggling with bed bugs, struggling with intractable infestations, that I hear about every day.

We started this group to advocate for bed bug control policies in our city. We simply want our city to follow Cincinnati’s and Toronto’s lead and establish a city-wide task force that can devise solutions, based on sound pest management advice, to stop the spread of bed bugs in New York City. We are not a support group. I guess we are lobbyists, of a sort.

Finally, and this is really most important, bed bugs are not pests that occur in homes because of uncleanliness. They feed exclusively on human blood.  Bed bugs are neither attracted by dirt nor repelled by cleanliness.

Therefore, I would not ever defensively speak about home cleanliness because I know, better than most, that such statements increase the stigma of bed bugs. I am dedicated to the idea that we have an obligation to confront the stigma of bed bugs. That the stigma of bed bugs must be defeated along with the bed bug. I have previously, though clumsily and unsuccessfully, tried to disentangle the historical sources of the stigma. The shame and stigma of bed bugs, their perennial association with poverty and filth, make everything about bed bugs more difficult. It causes people to not tell their neighbors or their landlords or others who may be at risk of exposure about their own infestations. It causes people to reach for drugstore sprays first. It causes infestations to spread. I would never seek to reinforce it. I would never speak of cleanliness in the context of bed bug infestations unless it were to say everything I’ve said here.

I don’t like to talk about my own bed bug experience because a) it was an unhappy one, and b) it detracts from the work that we are doing. This article confirms it. The reporter and I spoke about numerous policy questions, the difficulties of ascertaining the scope of the problem in urban areas, the good work being done in Cincinnati and Hamilton County, and the various challenges posed by infestations. But my personal experience with bed bugs, or more precisely my unwillingness to talk about it, clearly trumped all of that.


  1. Easy way to kill bedbugs

    Renee, I appreciate you hard work regarding this growing threat. I would only like to add that the use of DDT would have an immediate and profound impact on the problem of bedbug infestations.
    DDT was outlawed after the Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published. Her book claimed that DDT was harmful to the ecosystem and killed birds. Her claims have been since refuted and proven false. DDT was the one insecticide that wiped out bedbugs, termites, and malaria carrying mosquitoes. Since DDT was banned, millions of humans have died as a result of insect spread diseases (mostly malaria).
    DDT is the best weapon we have against many insect problems including bedbugs. Please read this page for a nice primer on DDT

    Thanks again Renee for the soapbox

  2. Renee Corea

    Hi Easy.

    There are several ways to reply to this. I guess first I would say, putting practical matters first, that we’re not convinced that DDT would work for bed bugs. I’ve written a couple of posts about this. See, for example, this one. Second, assuming for a moment that we’re wrong and that it could work, we would have to throw up our hands in sheer acknowledgment of the futility of any effort to try to “bring it back.” We, New York vs Bed Bugs, have such a hard time even getting our local government to create a public education campaign about bed bugs — imagine how much more difficult and, really honestly, impossible it would be for us to advocate such a thing as bringing back DDT.

    So, without getting into the subject of Silent Spring, I say that DDT is the most unlikely solution for bed bugs in the United States that we can think of. And because we have no money and no influence, we have to think of other things. Of course, that’s just our analysis of the situation. We could be wrong. But we also tend to give a lot of credit to the researchers who are telling us that DDT is no great shakes against bed bugs. Finally, I do have to say that DDT conversations are always fascinating. What a pesticide. And what depths of folly ours in abusing it. I poked fun a little bit at this here.

    We have our work cut out for us, but DDT is not on our radar as a solution. Thanks for your comment, we appreciate it.

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  5. sam bryks

    This notion that Rachel Carson’s basic premises were refuted is absolute nonsense. It has been decades since the controversy of “Silent Spring” her masterwork that was really the first major whistleblower advocacy for care against contamination of the environment. Professor Carson (she was a professor of Biology) was attacked by the chemical industry and the impact of her work both as a scientist in addressing this area as well as a writer of note made her one of the 100 most important people in the 20th century as selected by Time Magazine at the end of the milennium. I once attended a pest management conference and one of the key note speakers, a retired pest control owner, could not resist attacking her though she died more than 30 years ago.
    Yes DDT was an important product, and yes, it had huge impact on malaria control but the indiscriminate use of DDT does indeed impact wildlife and our environment.. that is well known and has NEVER been refuted by any reputable scientist. Further on the malaria issue.. mosquitoes had developed resistance to DDT decades ago. I worked in a mosquito lab in 1971 and was doing testing for resistance on mosquito larvae in Manitoba. and the resistance was there even that long ago.. On balance, DDT is still used in limited fashion on mosquito netting for beds as peoplea re so often bitten when they sleep.. as well as synthetic pyrethroids, and this has helped address the mosquito issue. By the way, the mosquito parasite is also resistant to most preventive treatments… and this is a great problem just like super bugs resistant to antibiotics.
    When we consider use of a particular product it has to be looked at in balance in the risk/benefit equation. So if one had a heart defect, open heart surgery is a risk to take to live, or if one has cancer, then radiation or chemotherapy is a worthwhile risk to save one’s life, but no one would take a chemotherapeutic agent if not absolutely necessary..
    many products have been banned due to concerns about long term effects on people, and especially children.. and this is as it should be, … If we truly had responsible pest management as a norm, then I would support getting back some things like diazinon or chlorpyifos (Dursban) to attack bed bugs, but this is not likely to happen. If it did happen, it would certainly help, but we still would need to put emphasis on IPM processes and good prevention….. that is the simple reality.. not some wish to get back DDT.. It is not going to happen and there is a huge question mark as to whether it would even work.. And there is a concern about long term effects on children..
    Sad to see such disinformation about Rachel Carson…. Anyone who knows anything about the subject finds this kind of statement total bunk.

  6. Renee Corea

    Hi Sam, I’ve missed you.

    Thanks for your comment.

    I confess I avoid the Rachel Carson debate, because I’m yellar! I’ve found that for too many people these DDT issues are articles of faith and persuasion is out of the question and the conversation quickly devolves… well, it’s just tricky, and you generally don’t find out if it’s an honest debate until it’s over and people have already said regrettable things. It doesn’t help that people see DDT mentioned in every single article about bed bugs.

    The issue of pesticides, other than DDT, is of very great interest to us, however, and we’re wary of blanket anti-pesticide arguments and find them dishonest.

    I stick to the practical issues and find that works well for our purposes. DDT is not coming back and we’re not going on any suicide mission to try to bring it back. Life is too short. It doesn’t even work for bed bugs!

    I did link to May Berenbaum’s excellent article in another post. It’s one of the best on this subject, I think.

  7. sam bryks

    Thanks Renee.. good comments… i just read Professor Berenbaum’s excellent article through your link. She is also editor of American Entomologist, a publication of the Entomological Society of America.
    That article certainly says it very well. Prof Berenbaum makes the point that pesticides are an important component of pest management, but not the only component. The bottom line really is that we must use toxicants with care, and try to use intelligence to enable prevention and risk of spread of infestation. In the case of bed bugs, it came on gradually, but few realized how it could spread so dramatically. In some ways, we are sort of back at square one about sensible pest management… and while some authorities have taken steps to address the broader issues such as the Australian Code of Practice for Bed Bug Management (but largely focused on the hospitality industry) and San Francisco’s Code with quite a lot of sensible measures. Meanwhile, there are struggles to get the problem addressed with difficulties of how to help people, who pays for what, and the usual array of charlatans offering miracle solutions of this or that sort, and a range of quality of pest control services. This has been a real money maker for the pest control industry, and from my perspective, there are still few that offer real IPM programs. It is one thing treating a single family dwelling and getting rid of the pests, and then homeowners being more careful in how they got them (holidays or other sources), but in the multi-dwelling setting, it can be very very tough. That is where an intelligently managed program of IPM with clear accountabilities is what is needed. One of the local activists for human rights, a lawyer who advocates for the disadvantaged, took the position that a landlord would be wise to invest in helping a disadvantaged tenant prepare for treatment for bed bugs as a cost of protecting the asset.. part of doing business. And I have heard of a remarkable case in which a landlord did put up a lot of money to help a longterm tenant who had simply lost the ability to manage her home in the circumstances. One could argue betterto invest some money to stop a problem than to wait for it to spread and cost lots more. It takes some courage and sensibility for a landlord to do that. We hear that the hotel industry at large spends a lot of money on treatment to ensure that the problem is eradicated fast, and in terms of reputation and liability, it is a sensible thing to do. Bed bugs are expensive to control.. and really so much better to put money into preventive maintenance, education of all stakeholders, and sensible high quality pest control treatments than to throw it away on endless treatment because the problem is spreading and, as has been mentioned here in other places, because of stigmatization through ignorance, and creation of fear and reaction. I see that even now from those who should know better, but simply are carried away by their own anxiety .. the typical NIMBY mentality but more like Not In My Home.. NIMH… actually that acronym belongs to National Institute for Mental Health I think, but not so far I guess in context..

  8. mangy

    the la times article was most frustrating–I’m sorry they misrepresented so egrigiously

  9. Renee Corea

    Thanks, Mangy, I confess it was really hard on me this LA Times business, but I’ve gotten over it. And good things are happening now, so if the LA Times article helped in some way, then so be it.

    It’s nice to see you here. Thanks for all your help!

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