Tiny blood-suckers invade Arkansas

Last week, the Arkansas News Bureau reported the return of a long-time scourge: bed bugs. According to John D. Hopkins, an associate professor and extension entomologist at the University of Arkansas, bed bug infestations are on the rise in the Natural State. For most — if not all — of us, this is one “natural” phenomenon we’d rather do without.

In a joint statement, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency note: “Bed bugs cause a variety of negative physical health, mental health and economic consequences. Many people have mild to severe allergic reaction to the bites with effects ranging from no reaction to a small bite mark to, in rare cases, anaphylaxis…

“These bites can also lead to secondary infections of the skin such as impetigo, ecthyma and lymphanigitis. Bed bugs may also affect the mental health of people living in infested homes. Reported effects include anxiety, insomnia and systemic reactions.”

Hopkins also clarified that bed bugs have been around for thousands of years. They feed on the blood of people and animals. Their preferred habitat is warm houses, especially near or inside beds and bedding. They also like chicken coops and chicken houses.

As the news report indicated, bed bugs have been a boon for exterminators. Unfortunately, that boon is its own kind of double-edged sword.

The CDC and EPA observe that bed bugs are becoming harder to kill: “Some bed bug populations are resistant to almost all pesticides registered to treat them. Residents may use over-the-counter or homemade preparations that are ineffective (or even dangerous) and may promote further resistance.”

Some folks old enough to remember using the pesticide DDT to treat bed bug infestations might beckon for a brief return of the now-banned chemical. Apart from the ecological and health nightmare DDT brought, there’s a more critical reason why it wouldn’t now work.

Naturalist Debbie Hadley explains, “DDT acts by binding to the sodium pores of cells, allowing sodium to flood the cells and causing the nervous system to misfire.

Today, the pesticides of choice for bed bugs are pyrethrums, but bed bugs are quickly developing resistance to this class of pesticides. Do you know how pyrethrums work? They bind to the sodium pores of cells – just like DDT. Bed bugs with the genetic mutation that makes them invincible to pyrethrums will be just as resistant to treatment with DDT.”

While bed bugs may not be the harbingers of plague like the fleas of the Middle Ages, their presence can be disquieting, discomforting and just plain terrible. Bed bugs find their way into many lives through old or used mattresses and through hotel rooms.

Predictably, such nuisances have implications for public policy. Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, sponsored legislation that became Act 1420 of 2013. This legislation requires all mattresses sold in the state to bear a label stating whether they are new or contain previously used materials.

Hutchinson said many of the used mattresses being sold as new pose a number of health hazards, such as the presence of body fluids, and also have the potential for bed bug infestation. In a word: ick!

For more information on this issue — along with some ideas for relief and prevention go to http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/publications/bed_bugs_cdc-epa_statement.htm.