Bed bug summit: solution to infestations 'not rocket science'

A National Bed Bug Summit in Washington seeks to make headway against bed bug infestations across the US. The new approach: integrated pest management.

Alex Brandon/AP
Sharunda Buchanan of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention speaks at the National Bed Bug Summit in Washington Tuesday.

In a bid to hold the line against bed bugs, a small army of pest-control experts converged on Washington Tuesday for a national summit on the prickly challenge.

The subtitle of the conference said it all: "Advancing Towards Solutions to the Bed Bug Problem."

From federal research labs to private firms and city agencies, the bed bug experts don't claim to have found the perfect solution. But they're determined to step up a coordinated national response. And they say the right steps can achieve big results.

"It's not rocket science. We need to make it happen," said summit speaker Thomas Green, of the IPM Institute of America.

He was referring specifically to the goal of reducing complaints about bed bugs in schools – and pesticide use in schools – by about 70 percent. But he encapsulated a message that was echoed by many other speakers at the conference, which was also webcast over the Internet.

The state-of-the-art approach is called "IPM," or integrated pest management. Basically, that means using education as a preventive tool, vigilance to detect problems early, and wisdom to devise appropriate responses. Chemicals are at best only part of the solution.

But that art is still evolving, and the bed bugs are formidable foe. Many of the pests are developing resistance to chemicals designed to kill them.

So no one was promising an all-out victory against infestations any time soon.

The problem is an age-old one, encapsulated in the advice, "Don't let the bed bugs bite," and memorialized in a Rolling Stones song about New York City: "You got rats on the west side, bed bugs uptown...."

Yes, now they're in uptown Manhattan and just about every state or city in America.

"I wish we could just tell bed bugs, 'You're not allowed in this state,' " said Liza Fleeson, a manager at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The Environmental Protection Agency, organizer of the two-day summit that began Tuesday, is leading multiple federal agencies in a working group on the subject.

Even the US military is involved. No joke. But the reason is that places like Army bases are affected by the problem, not because bullets or bombs have been identified as viable solutions.

The challenge is a reminder that, in an age of complex manmade threats (computer bugs, anyone?) old-fashioned pests also continue to tax the skills of top scientists and public officials.

The humans aren't giving up the fight.

Pest-control experts at the conference said the key steps are: preventive measures, detecting the problem early through frequent inspections of at-risk buildings, education of the public and of building maintenance workers, and deploying well-designed treatment plans.

Chemical pesticides are often accompanied by heat treatments (raising a room's temperature above 113 degrees or so), and low-tech steps like running clothes through the dryer.

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