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Why Are Bed Bugs Making a Comeback?

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An adult bed bug, Cimex lectularius, ingesting a blood meal from the arm of a human host.

An adult bed bug, Cimex lectularius, ingesting a blood meal from the arm of a human host.

Photo: CDC/Piotr Naskrecki
Question: Why Are Bed Bugs Making a Comeback?
Answer:

For centuries, bed bugs were a common pest wherever humans lived. According to Susan C. Jones, Assistant Professor of Entomology at Ohio State University, bed bugs traveled to North America with the colonists. From the 17th century until World War II, people slept with these bloodthirsty parasites biting them.

Just after World War II, strong pesticides like DDT and chlordane came into widespread use. Bed bugs nearly disappeared completely over several decades of heavy pesticide use. Bed bug infestations were limited, and bed bugs were no longer considered a major pest.

Eventually, these pesticides were proven harmful to people's health and the environment. The U.S. banned DDT in 1972, when it was shown to contribute to the decline of birds like the bald eagle. A total ban on chlordane followed in 1988. People's attitudes about pesticides also changed. Knowing these chemicals could harm us, we lost our enthusiasm for fumigating every last bug in our homes.

The pesticides used in homes today do a better job of targeting specific pest populations. Rather than spray a broad spectrum pesticide in their homes, people use chemical baits and traps to kill common pests, like ants or roaches. Since bed bugs feed only on blood, they aren't attracted to these pest control baits.

Just as broad spectrum pesticide use waned, cheap air travel allowed people to visit places where bed bugs still persisted. Bed bugs hadn't made headlines in years, and most travelers never considered the possibility of bringing bed bugs home. Stowaway bed bugs in luggage and clothing made their way to cities and towns where they had been eradicated decades ago.

Bed bugs now infest numerous public places, where they can crawl onto clothing and hitchhike to your home. Hotels top the list of bed bug hideouts, but they may also be found in theaters, airplanes, subways, trains, buses, prisons, and dormitories. Your best guard against bed bugs is information. Know what they look like, and take appropriate steps to keep them from crossing your threshold.

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