A sidelight to the recent epidemic of bedbugs that appears to be blossoming all over the country is how it calls to mind a fundamental axiom of toxicology, namely, that it is important to weigh "risk vs. benefit."
Prior to the U.S. ban on DDT, the incidence and significance of bedbug infestations was so inconsequential that my company charged the grand sum of $18.00 for a single treatment of a hotel room, with a thirty-day guarantee. I do not recall a single incidence of having to schedule a second treatment. The key was the ability to treat not only the usual cracks and crevices but also the mattresses (especially the piping and little buttons) and bed frames without any fear of dermal irritation. We insisted then as now that the bed clothing, etc. be removed and cleaned, but since there would probably be some time delay before that was accomplished, the chemical treatment was having its effect.
DDT did not cause dermal or topical irritation. Remember its early use during World War II when it was liberally applied as a dusting powder to delouse infested civilians and military alike. In fact, DDT even was a recognized "drug" listed in the U.S. pharmacopeia with an accepted external and even internal oral dose!
Its beneficial uses, of course, were drowned out by the emotional crescendo that accompanied a long and politicized federal hearing prior to the ban. Recall, though, that the final verdict of the hearing was that DDT was relatively safe, a verdict that was administratively overturned — after the fact — by EPA's Administrator. The scientific community then and now recognizes that a strict adherence to the rule of judging the risk of an agent vs. the benefit of its careful use was totally abandoned here.
And during our current battle with what should in effect be a minor and easily removed incursion of bedbugs, there are few alternate substances registered for use with such efficacy and dermal safety; ergo, success is profoundly influenced by and dependent upon the thoroughness and speed of the housekeeping staff in tearing apart bed frames; perhaps disassembling furniture; bagging, removing, and sterilizing bed linens; and other inefficient and costly measures.
Granted, this all fades into inconsequence when compared to how this agent was removed from the arsenal for attacking diseases like malaria and fly-borne encephalitis, but the irony is the same: the public blames industry for problems caused by activists who, in their ignorance and fervor, were ostensibly acting in the public interest.
Harold S. Stein, Jr. is a past president of the National Pest Management Association.