By Alan Caruba
I know the media and, by extension, everyone else is focused on April 15 as the day tax returns must be filed, but there is another event going on in Washington that is not likely to get much attention.
It is a two-day, April 14-15 Bed Bug Summit being held by the Environmental Protection Agency to address the nationwide infestations of bed bugs. One of the reasons this nasty little pest has burst upon the scene goes back to the banning of DDT by the EPA.
By the end of the 1950s, bed bugs were no longer a significant pest problem. Bed bugs had been so thoroughly eliminated by pest management professionals that a new generation of them had never seen one or had any idea how to combat them. Of the many insect pest species, bed bugs are among the most difficult to eliminate.
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” got the anti-pesticide panic going by defaming DDT. Not only was it banned here, but also worldwide. The ban has since led to millions of needless deaths in malarial regions like Africa.
Bed bugs are common in other nations that are less attentive to insect pest eradication and with the rise of international travel they hopped a ride to the United States via the luggage of foreign tourists and Americans returning home from traveling abroad. They began showing up initially a few years ago in hotels and resorts frequented by travelers as well as the homes of Americans who had been overseas.
Had the EPA not banned DDT in 1972 it is very likely there would be no significant bed bug problem here in the United States.
As the EPA put it at the time, “The general use of the pesticide DDT will no longer be legal in the United States after today, ending nearly three decades of application during which time the once-popular chemical was used to control insect pests on crop and forest lands, around homes and gardens, and for industrial and commercial purposes.”
This has been a chronic problem with the EPA. It tends to create or exacerbate more problems than it solves.
The agency banned Chlordane in the 1980s; it was one of the most effective and successful termiticides ever invented. Pest controllers used to pump it into the ground around a home and it would stay there for a half century as a chemical fence against termites seeking access through foundations or getting close enough to build a mud tunnel to get inside a home. Termites are responsible for an estimated five billion dollars damage annually, more than all the fires and floods combined.
In 1998, Harry Katz, a pest management expert, noted that “Many studies were made of chlordane’s effect on humans. The World Health Organization reports about a study in 1981 in which mortality of 782 workers who manufactured chlordane and heptachlor for up to 20 years showed no increase in cancer in comparison to normal death figures. In another study by Wang and MacMahon in 1980, all cancer deaths were lower than expected. In a follow-up study in 1982, the two Harvard researchers looked again at the mortality rates of termite control technicians and found there was no significant increase of cancer cases.”
These and other bans almost always come down to a political and/or ideological decision. The science regarding such bans rarely represents any real or significant threat unless perhaps someone literally drinks the stuff from the bottle!
The EPA has a registration process for new pesticides (and renewal of older ones) that literally costs chemical producers millions of dollars before a pesticide can be registered for use either exclusively by pest management professionals and specific to particular pest species, or made available off the shelf to the public.
During the Clinton administration, Carol Browner, then the EPA Director and now the environmental advisor to President Obama, announced the restricted use of one of the most effective pesticides against a whole range of insect pests, Dursban, and removed it from use by consumers who had been using it successfully for decades to rid homes, dorm rooms, offices and everywhere else of cockroaches, spiders, ants, mosquitoes, etc.
Browner said the Agency was "shutting off the manufacture of this chemical” according to the Associated Press, but anti-pesticide fanatics complained that the EPA action did not recall the product already on store shelves. The EPA saw no problem allowing the use of Dursban to continue as an agricultural application to protect food crops against insect predators.
The primary reason given for the Dursban ban was that the action was taken to protect children from exposure. Any time you hear it’s “for the children” that’s a sure sign there is little real science-based justification.
The EPA effectively banned a pesticide called “Ficam”, a remarkable product that eliminated a wide range of insect pests and was applied with nothing more toxic than water. By demanding that the product go through the multi-million dollar registration process again, the EPA drove it from the marketplace when the manufacturer decided it wasn’t worth it.
These bans are almost always based on the ideology that pesticides are a threat to humans and other species like birds or fish. When properly applied pesticides are only a threat to insect pests that have, for millennia, transmitted diseases to humans.
In parts of Central and South America today, people are dying of Dengue fever and a nasty disease called Chagas. In the United States Lyme Disease, transmitted by ticks, continues to afflict people. By contrast, a pesticide-based campaign against West Nile Fever, transmitted by mosquitoes, has proven effective.
There is a reason your favorite supermarket or restaurant is not home to insect and rodent pests. It is because professionals using pesticides keep it pest free. There isn’t a school, a hospital, or any other public facility that is not kept pest free in the same way. Usually the work is done at night so as not to disturb the delicate sensibility of the very people being protected.
For two days the EPA will listen to testimony about the bed bug problem afflicting the nation. They could have saved themselves the time, effort, and cost involved by simply adopting a more science-based attitude toward pesticides, but that is not going to happen so long as the ideologues and other scare mongers are in charge.
In the interest of full disclosure, years ago I used to do public relations for “Ficam” and I continue to provide PR services to my state pest management association. For nearly four decades, I have known dozens of pest management professionals who take justified pride in keeping the homes, offices, and businesses of their clients pest-free.