Hey Mr. Green,
How can I effectively cope with bed bugs in as green a way possible – if that’s even possible, given how difficult they are to treat in the first place. What is most frustrating is that many of my low-impact strategies aren't working because I live in a small studio apartment and my bed is near, well, everything, including all of my reuseable cloth bags, napkins, and towels.
Anyhow, all of these wonderful items which made a low impact are out the window right now due to these critters. Now my life is being lived out of plastic tubs and countless plastic bags until I am declared bug-free and can revert back to my low-impact ways again. Help?
–Victoria in Brooklyn, New York
If anybody still doubts the bed-bug resurgence, they missed the big news about the EPA's Bed Bug Summit, where public-health people and entomologists gathered to strategize about curbing the latest arthropodic vampire menace.
As far as I can tell, no single low-impact method exists to cope with these tormentors. You have to rely on an ensemble of measures to combat the bloodsuckers, whose American renaissance has resulted from their sneaking in on international travelers and luggage, our reluctance to use toxic pesticides, and their growing resistance to any pesticide.
It seems that you’ve already taken some measures to contain them by sealing up objects in which they can hide. They live in any clutter or tiny crack, so the first line of defense is a very thorough cleaning, not just of beds and bedding, but of anything that might be infested. Seal all crevices where they might lurk, down to cracks in the wall. The creatures can't fly, but they do crawl out for their gruesome meals. (University of Kentucky bed-bug authority Michael Potter says they "feed by piercing the skin with an elongated beak through which they withdraw blood. Engorgement takes about three to 10 minutes." And they don't merely pierce and suck, but inject an anticoagulant to facilitate the process.
Go over box springs, beds, and couches, inside and out. They also live inside and under furniture, at the edges of wall-to-wall carpeting, behind headboards, picture frames, mirrors, and switch plates and outlets. They can even take up residence inside electronic equipment.
Steam cleaning will kill them, but not everything can be steam-cleaned. Laundering fabrics with water at 120 degrees or hotter will do them in, as will putting infested objects in a clothes dryer set at medium to high heat for 10 to 20 minutes. But obviously you can't treat things that would be damaged by these high temperatures. To slaughter them in material that can't be put in the washing machine or dryer, try wrapping it in plastic and putting it outside in a very hot, sunny place for several days. Pack the items loosely so the bugs can't find refuge from the heat, and check with a thermometer to make sure they're cooking to death at 120°F or more. Freezing isn't as reliable as heating, and you have to keep things frozen for several days to be effective. (For richly detailed descriptions of bedbug detection and eradication procedures, see Potter's site.)
If your bed has legs, set them in a container (like a smooth can or jar), since they’re not good at climbing slick surfaces. If it won't damage the legs, insert soap into the container. Another option is to coat the legs with petroleum jelly or wrap them with double-sided sticky tape to trap the bugs.
For super security, you can purchase plastic or tightly woven cloth bed-bug covers that will seal them in. Cover both the box springs and the mattress. The most drastic measure is to get rid of the bed. If all these measures fail, try to find a pest-control company that uses heat instead of pesticides to eradicate the critters. Some even have dogs trained to find the bedbugs.
But even if you succeed in exterminating them in you own apartment, you still may not have solved the problem, since they could spread from other units in a building. This is already leading to political action. New York City has created a Bed Bug Advisory Board and in February, the New Jersey legislature passed a bed-bug bill. In Columbus, Ohio, where apartment managers are spending $1.5 million per year to deal with bed bugs, the apartment association offers good information about how to cope with bed bugs, including useful Integrated Pest Management Protocols.