Dozens Sickened, 1 Dies Trying to Kill Bedbugs: CDC

By Andrew Siff
|  Friday, Sep 23, 2011  |  Updated 12:03 AM EDT
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They've infested apartments, offices and movie theaters, but new evidence has uncovered a bigger threat than bedbugs: the very pesticides used to kill them. Andrew Siff reports.

NBC New York

They've infested apartments, offices and movie theaters, but new evidence has uncovered a bigger threat than bedbugs: the very pesticides used to kill them. Andrew Siff reports.

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New Yorkers worried about bedbugs should perhaps be more concerned about the insecticides used to get rid of them.

A government study counted one death and 80 illnesses linked to bedbug insecticides over three years, and most of the cases were in New York City. Common symptoms experienced were headaches, dizziness, breathing problems or nausea and vomiting.

The study released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the first to look at the issue.

Bedbugs are wingless, reddish-brown insects that bite people and animals to draw blood for their meals. Though their bites can cause itching, they have not been known to spread disease.

“The fact is bedbugs, when they bite you, don’t carry any illnesses that humans have ever gotten,” according to Dr. Susi Vassallo, a toxins expert at NYU’s Langone Medical Center.

The CDC looked at reports from California, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Texas and Washington, the only states that tracked such illnesses. The study counted 111 cases in the years 2003 through 2010. Most occurred in the last few years, when bedbug reports rose across the country. More than half were in New York City.

The one death in 2010 was a 65-year-old woman from Rocky Mount, N.C., who had a history of heart trouble and other ailments. She and her husband used nine cans of insecticide fogger one day, then the same amount two days later, without opening doors and windows to air out their home afterward. She also covered her body and hair with another bedbug product, and covered her hair with a plastic cap.

Tim Wong, a pest control expert at M&M Environmental in Lower Manhattan, said bedbug calls at the business were up 12 percent over last, but he urged New Yorkers to keep a cool head before using drastic measures like untested pesticides and chemicals they've purchased online.

“Bedbugs are very annoying, but they’re not deadly,” said Wong. “But the pesticides you could be using could be. So you have to be careful.”

Many New Yorkers said they still planned to take precautions. Carl Chong, of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, said when he heard his grandmother’s building had a bedbug problem, he wasted no time getting a bedbug-proof mattress cover for his own bed.

“I’m not even gonna take the chances,” he said. “Protect myself from here on.”     

CDC officials said it's not clear that the insecticides were a definite cause of illness in each of the cases, and it's possible some were coincidental.

About 90 percent of the cases were linked to pyrethroids or pyrethrins, common insecticides sometimes used against bedbugs. But in some cases, an incorrect and more dangerous product was used. That happened in Ohio last year, when an uncertified exterminator used malathion — which should never be used indoors — to rid an apartment of bedbugs. A couple and their 6-year-old child got sick.

Investigators said they didn't know what to expect with the study, but were relieved to see a relatively small number of cases.

"At this point, it's not a major public health problem," said Dr. Geoff Calvert, a CDC investigator who co-authored the study.

The report was released through a CDC publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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