Bedbugs don’t make you sick. But the poisons used to kill them can.
A new government study found that dozens of Americans have fallen ill from the insecticides, and a North Carolina woman died after using 18 cans of chemical fogger to attack the tiny blood suckers.
Because many of the cases, including the lone death, were do-it-yourselfers who misused the chemicals or applied the wrong product, federal health officials are warning consumers to be careful and urging them to call professionals.
The report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 80 illnesses and one death linked to the insecticides over three years. Most of the cases were in New York City, the apparent epicenter of a recent U.S. bedbug comeback.
The CDC was able to get data from 12 states, and only seven had reports of such illnesses. One was New York, where bedbugs have become a highly publicized problem and where health officials have also been extra vigilant about reporting unusual chemical poisonings.
Investigators were relieved to find a relatively small number of cases.
“At this point, it’s not a major public health problem,” said Dr. Geoff Calvert, a CDC investigator who coauthored the study.
Bedbugs are wingless, reddish-brown insects that bite people and animals to draw blood for their meals. Though their bites can cause itching and welts, they are not known to spread disease.
“There’s nothing inherently dangerous about bedbugs,” said Dr. Susi Vassallo, an emergency medicine doctor who works at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital Center and occasionally treats patients who report bedbug problems.
But the insects are a major hassle. In recent national surveys of exterminators, bedbugs were named the toughest pest to get rid of. They can hide for months, only come out at night and can be hard to spot with the human eye.
They are also creepy, provoking intense fear in the minds of many people unnerved by the threat that an almost invisible insect could emerge at night to drink their blood.
“ Sometimes people get hysterical,” said Theresa Braine, a New York City journalist who lived with bedbugs in her apartment for a year and now writes a weekly Internet column about the pests.
The CDC study was the first to look at the dangers of bedbug insecticides. Researchers reviewed reports from California, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Texas and Washington.
They counted 111 cases from 2003 through 2010. Most occurred in the last few years, when bedbug reports rose across the country. More than half were in New York City.
People suffered headaches, dizziness, breathing problems and nausea and vomiting. More than 80 percent of the illnesses were considered mild.
The one death was a 65-year-old woman from Rocky Mount, N.C., who had a history of heart trouble and other ailments.
In 2010, she and her husband used nine cans of insecticide fogger one day, then the same amount two days later, without opening doors and windows to air out their home afterward. She also covered her body and hair with another bedbug product, and covered her hair with a plastic shower cap.
Two other illnesses were carpet cleaners who had not been told the apartment had recently been treated with pesticides. Two more were emergency medical technicians who responded to a scene and were exposed to a white powder believed to be a pesticide.