As bedbugs have proliferated in the last decade, remedies against them -- special zipper covers for mattresses, sprays, even dogs trained to sniff out bedbugs -- have begun multiplying on shelves as well.
But experts say that bedbug foggers, a common over-the-counter product better known as a bug bomb, don't work at all -- and a lack of regulatory scrutiny means many consumers will keep feeling the pinch.
Bug bombs work by releasing aerosolized chemicals upward, where they remain suspended in the air for some time and then settle onto surfaces.
Ohio State University entomologist Susan C. Jones tested three kinds of insect fogger -- the Hotshot Bedbug and Flea Fogger, the Spectracide Bug Stop Indoor Fogger, and the Eliminator Indoor Fogger, all made by the United Industries Corp. in St. Louis -- on five populations of bedbugs collected from residences around Columbus, Ohio, and one population of lab-raised bugs.
None of the foggers were effective at killing the bedbugs found out in the wild -- and the relatively weaker lab-raised population could escape death simply by hiding under a thin piece of cloth, Jones reported in the Journal of Economic Entomology on June 3.
The public is ill-served when products do not perform in accordance with labeling and use directions claims, Jones wrote in her paper.
The results weren't surprising to entomologists.
In a nutshell, Dr. Jones' study reinforces what I would have expected, University of Kentucky entomologist Mike Potter wrote in an email.
Over-the-counter foggers, Potter explained, are quite different from true fumigants that can penetrate deep into the hidden places where many insects hide. Bug bombs just can't penetrate into the cracks and crevices to get at the bedbugs. Plus, bug-bomb ingredients also tend to act as repellents, causing insects to scatter and flee deeper into hiding.
Many wild bedbugs have also developed resistance to pyrethrins, the primary active ingredient in bug bombs. In her experiments, Jones found that even two hours of direct exposure to the insect fogger was not enough to kill most of the urban bedbugs.
Bottom line, while foggers are easy and convenient to apply by householders, Susan's work reinforces the fact that such approaches are a waste of time, Potter said.
A Buggy EPA Process?
Charlie Duckworth, a vice president for research & development at Spectrum Brands, the parent company of United Industries, pointed out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just re-registered the Hotshot bedbug fogger within the past month, accepting the company's efficacy claims.
But the EPA doesn't actually scrutinize efficacy claims for the application of bedbug products in the same way that it looks at other pesticides, according to Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an urban entomologist at Cornell University.
There's just no requirement in place that makes the companies provide really solid data that these products work against pyrethrin-resistant bed bugs and that they work in a home and not just a lab, Gangloff-Kaufmann said.
While the EPA requires companies to prove that other products, like agricultural pesticides and mosquito repellents, work in the environments they're used in, it hasn't adopted similar standards for bedbug products. The reason for the gap in standards is that bedbugs have only appeared relatively recently on the bureaucratic time scale, so they're not yet considered a major public health pest, according to Gangloff-Kaufmann.
That's a loophole more than big enough for a bedbug to crawl through.
The EPA is currently revisiting its guidelines for bedbug efficacy testing and a revised set of rules is in the works, said Gangloff-Kaufmann, who is on the scientific advisory committee working on the revision process.
So why do people still use insect foggers if they don't work on bedbugs? Jones said it's mostly poorer people who can't afford professional pest exterminators.
Communities as a whole need to recognize this is a problem, she said. When the bedbug population builds up in poorer communities that can't afford proper treatment -- those people are part of the community! They travel, and the bedbugs start traveling with them.
Since bedbug foggers are such duds, one might think there would be some sort of official action from consumer-protection regulators that examine efficacy claims in advertising.
Frank Dorman, a representative of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, said the agency hasn't gotten any complaints about United Industries' bedbug foggers and doesn't have any official actions open against the company for those products.
But this isn't the first time United Industries' insect products have come under scrutiny. In the 1990s, the company faced federal and state charges that it overstated the effectiveness of its Terminate termite-bait system. The FTC and the District of Columbia, along with nine state attorneys general, said that the company's advertising misleadingly implied its product alone could prevent termite infestations and damage.
United Industries settled the suits in March 1999 without admitting guilt, promised to refund customers dissatisfied with Terminate, and modified its advertising claims for the product.
Jones actually started out as a termite researcher herself, but said she got sucked into the bedbug scene sometime in 2003.
I went into entomology because I like insects! Jones said. But I really don't like bedbugs very much. I do respect them, though. They are tenacious.
SOURCE: Jones et al. Ineffectiveness of Over-the-Counter Total-Release Foggers Against the Bed Bug (Heteroptera: Cimicidae). Journal of Economic Entomology 105: 957-963.
Roxanne has liked science ever since she started watching "Bill Nye the Science Guy" on Saturday mornings over a bowl of sucrotic O's. She especially likes writing about...