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For years, I've sent my daughter off to dream the hours away with the same playfully anachronistic bedtime admonition my own parents offered me. "Good night. Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite," goes our ancient childhood rhyme about what seemed to be mythical bugs that live in the bed just like the imaginary monster lives in the closet. Except that bedbugs are real creatures that reside in actual mattresses. And they're back in a big and very creepy crawly way.
Suddenly, for reasons that remain fairly mysterious, bedbugs are again haunting America's nights and feeding on our blood like tiny invertebrate vampires. Though they're clean, transmit no known diseases, and produce bites that go largely unnoticed, that's still, to use a technical term, super icky and something that would disturb even the most hardened entomologist.
Once upon a time, you simply met arriving bedbugs with a few squirts of DDT, the chemical responsible for just about wiping them off the face of the Earth in the 1940s and 50s. But we all know how that bedtime story ended. DDT wiped out a lot of other things, too, which makes it a nightmare for anyone who wants to wake up in a healthy world. A more modern solution has been pyrethrins, but this sort-of-safe, semi-natural chemical often no longer works on the now frequently resistant bedbugs, and the remaining chemical alternatives are true night terrors.
So what do we do now? Because bedbugs can live for months without food, and they hide where we can't readily get at them -- in mattress nooks and box spring crannies, baseboard cracks and floor crevices, behind wallpaper, under rugs, and in clutter wherever it's found. Short of literally dismantling the entire bedroom, laundering everything in it, and heat-treating whatever can't go in the washer and dryer (which is pretty much most of it), science is fresh out of nontoxic answers. And even this solution isn't really much of an option. Miss just a few bugs and you're back where you started.
Certainly there are things we can do to prevent infestations (beware hotel rooms, visiting luggage, and used furniture), but once they happen, the only truly viable strategy would seem to involve pesticides whose scorched-earth approach puts a very high price on sweet dreams indeed.
The question is which is worse: Carnivorous insects in our PJs or mischievous molecules in our bloodstreams? At what point does the incredibly gross pest factor outweigh the remarkably spooky pesticide risk factor? Where do we draw the line and when do we cross it? For my part, I've got a really low tolerance threshold for bugs that eat me while I sleep. I'm not saying I would use pesticides in my family's bedrooms if bedbugs showed up. But I'm not saying I wouldn't either. And I strongly suspect that if I ever threw back the covers and saw bedbugs curling up for a good night's feast, I might be pretty quick to jettison my entire eco-belief system and hit the hardware store pest control aisle running. What about you?