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DIY Bedbug Extermination Can Make You Sick

Bedbug insecticide products are displayed at a bedbug summit in Illinois.
Bedbug insecticide products are displayed at a bedbug summit in Illinois.

That anyone with bedbugs in their home would resort to desperate measures to get rid of them comes as no surprise. The insects are some of the most aggravating and entrenched of any bug that bites or buzzes around us. But a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the DIY approach to bedbug control is a pretty risky enterprise.

This week's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report tells the story of a 65-year-old North Carolina woman who was so determined to get rid of bedbugs in 2010 that her husband sprayed the inside of their home with two different insecticides, neither of which are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The couple used another 18 cans of insecticide over the next few days and the woman applied the chemicals to her arms, chest and hair. Tragically, she had pre-existing health conditions and the chemicals seem to have hastened her death several days later.

This story is the most dire (and only death) among the 111 cases of illness from excessive use or misuse of insecticides to kill bed bugs reported by the CDC. The cases occurred in seven states from 2003 to 2010 and most involved pyrethroids or pyrethrins, chemicals that are toxic to humans in high doses.

While a few cases involved pest control workers who mishandled the chemicals, some 39 percent of the cases that led to illness were in regular people untrained in pesticide application — in other words, homeowners or renters who wanted to do it themselves.

"There are people not reading the pesticide label or if they are, they're not following it, leading to significant overexposure," Dr. Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an urban entomologist and senior extension associate with the New York State integrated pest management program at Cornell University, tells Shots. "Because it's in a private place, our beds, people will take it upon themselves to self-treat and it's dangerous, obviously."

Some people may be ordering their bedbug killers off the web, from sites like doyourownpestcontrol.com. But bedbug experts like Gangloff-Kaufmann caution against this and suggest hiring a professional instead.

In DIY pest management, there's also the risk of purchasing products that are not registered with the EPA and potentially dangerous if used incorrectly (for example, pesticides for outdoor use, used indoors). The EPA advises that you read the labels carefully and follow the directions if you insist on DIY.

How long these chemicals will be useful, though, is anyone's guess: Research earlier this year noted that some bedbugs are growing resistant to commonly used pesticides. So bedbug victims and pest management companies alike may be wise to consider other, non-chemical ways to deal — like integrated pest management.

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