I-Team: Bedbug Treatments Leave Homes in Flames

Experts debate whether a type of bedbug extermination treatment is dangerous for the home

People who get bedbugs often say they would try anything to get rid of the bloodsucking pests, and now there's debate over a type of heat treatment after several fires across the U.S. and Canada are being blamed on bedbug exterminations gone wrong.

In the summer of 2011, a 50-unit condominium in Edmonton, Canada burned when exterminators used a pest control treatment known as radiant heat, according to investigators there. It promises to eradicate bedbugs using industrial space heaters and fans to bring every square inch of an infested room above 120 degrees. Exterminators say more than an hour and a half of exposure to such high temperatures ensures a 100 percent bedbug kill rate.

The problem is, warming confined spaces with powerful heaters carries serious fire hazards, according to some experts. 

“The worst that can happen is you can burn your house down, and you’re risking your life,” said Glenn Waldorf, of Bell Environmental Services in Fairfield, N.J.

After the Edmonton condominium building burned, Canadian fire investigators issued a $10,000 fine to Calgary-based pest control company Bed Bug Task Force. The exterminators were found to have used propane heaters against fire code. The owners of the apartment building are now suing Bed Bug Task Force for $3.5 million in damages.

Bed Bug Task Force did not return the I-Team’s email seeking comment.

Radiant heat treatments have led to other disastrous fires closer to New York City. Last month in Woodbury, N.J., fire officials said a man accidentally set his house on fire while attempting to kill bedbugs with a do-it-yourself radiant heat treatment. In October of 2012, fire investigators in New Hampshire said a three-family home burned down during a heat treatment. Last Valentine’s Day, firefighters in Dayton, Ohio, responded to a second-floor fire and found a pest control company was using heaters and fans to kill bedbugs.

“Consumers are panicked. You have bugs in your home. You’ve got these little vampires in your bed biting you, and they imagine companies have solutions and don’t think through what the issues are with any of the various solutions out there,” said Waldorf.

Waldorf said using cryogenic freeze technology is much safer than using heat to kill bedbugs. But while some pest control outfits warn against thermal treatments, others stand by radiant heat as the gold standard in bedbug extermination.

Robert Suriano, president of Bliss Pest Protection Services in New York City, recently invested tens of thousands of dollars in heaters and fans intended for bedbug eradication. He said the recent fires prove only that homeowners should trust trained professionals and avoid low-cost, do-it-yourself heat treatments.

“Sometimes the cheapest is not the dearest and you can see -- with buildings burning, homes burning, artwork burning – that puts a good light that you need a professional exterminating company, a pest management company.”

Suriano said his technicians monitor room temperatures with remote sensors that can automatically shut off heaters if they get too hot. He also pointed out many of the recent fires were caused by propane heaters. Bliss Pest Protection uses electric heaters that plug into portable generators kept outdoors.

As for the efficacy of freeze treatments, Suriano says heat is superior because bedbugs can potentially avoid cold spots in a way they cannot avoid an entire room saturated with heat.

“You cannot cryogenically freeze a room. You can cryogenically freeze spots within a room,” Suriano said.

The fire and ice debate over the best bedbug extermination method is far from settled. Waldorf says his freeze technology is exhaustive and eliminates bedbugs as well as radiant heat – without risk of an electrical short or the danger of catching fabric on fire.

“That’s a pretty serious danger,” Waldorf said. “We just don’t think it is worth the risk to get rid of some insects.”

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