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Beset With Bedbugs? Don't Bother With Bug Bombs

Bedbugs on display at the  National Bed Bug Summit held in Washington in early 2011.
Alex Brandon
Bedbugs on display at the National Bed Bug Summit held in Washington in early 2011.

Bedbug infestations can be maddening. So readily available bug bombs that fill the house with a pesticide fog are understandably tempting. But research shows they're not likely to work.

Writing in the Journal of Economic Entomology, researchers from Ohio State University say they tested three popular bug bomb products on five different populations of bedbugs, collected "in the wild" from homes around Ohio. All three products failed miserably.

A bug bomb is basically an aerosol can that fills a room with insecticides called pyrethrins. They didn't exactly have a stellar reputation before, either. There are anecdotal reports that the products stir up the bugs, causing them to leave their hiding places and potentially scatter to new locations. And as NPR's Jon Hamilton reported last year, many bedbugs are becoming resistant to pyrethrins.

"If [bug bombs] don't work in the first place, that's what people need to know," lead author and entymology professor Susan Jones tells Shots. So she tested three products, including two general-purpose bug bombs, Spectracide Bug Stop Indoor Fogger and Eliminator Indoor Fogger, and one marketed specifically for bedbugs, Hot Shot Bedbug and Flea Fogger. All three are manufactured by Spectrum Brands.

The bombs were detonated while bugs were either exposed in open containers, or hidden under strips of paper or cloth that simulated, in a minimal way, the fabrics, mattresses and pillows in which they normally hide. That should have made the foggers' job easy. "This is like giving them the most favorable conditions in the world" for killing bedbugs, Jones says. But even when the bugs were denied shelter, nearly all of them survived, the tests found.

Charlie Duckworth, who does research and development for Spectrum Brands, says only the Hot Shot product is designed specifically for bedbugs. "That one has data that it does kill bedbugs," he says, citing information the Environmental Protection Agency reviews before approving insecticides.

Duckworth says EPA will soon require products not proved effective on bedbugs to carry a label saying as much. EPA didn't confirm that assertions. But in an email, an agency spokeswoman said that pesticide resistance, available hiding spots, and other factors can make it hard to treat bedbugs successfully. "Foggers and bug bombs should not be used as the only method to attempt to control bed bugs," the EPA website says.

The Federal Trade Commission's website goes even further. "Steer clear of bug bombs or foggers," it warns, citing the scattering effect.

Jones says there are other reasons to avoid the insecticides, which are flammable, can be toxic and, when overused, contribute to increased resistance among the bugs.

"The $10 that you spent on an over-the-counter fogger would be much more effectively spent at a laundromat," Jones says. The heat of a drier can kill bedbugs and their eggs. But she says that's just one of many steps to ridding yourself of a bedbug infestation. Still, she advises leaving the insecticides to the professionals.

And that advice is underscored by a roundup of illnesses linked to do-it-yourself use of insecticides. In recent years more than 111 people in seven states got sick from pesticides used to get rid of bedbugs, according to an analysis published last year in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ted Burnham

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