In a large apartment building, it’s impossible to avoid the neighbors. You can hear the Bruce Springsteen that the tenant in 7B cranks while vacuuming, the kids in 8A directly above tromping around, and if someone decides to paint, the fumes reach everyone on the floor. So when a building supervisor notified owners in a sixty-unit co-op building in Brooklyn that one of the apartments had a bedbug infestation, Eddie Rosenthal feared that it was only a matter of time until the bugs spread to his home.
“There are lots and lots of cracks in the walls,” said Rosenthal, a 30-year resident of the nearly century-old building. “There are so many places for them to hide.”
But it wasn't just the tiny, biting bugs that gave Rosenthal the creeps. So did the prospect of using pesticides inside his home.
So Rosenthal decided to try a few tricks that might keep his home bug-free without spraying chemicals. He raised his bed off the ground, filled some cracks in walls and applied nontoxic powder to spaces between the walls where many bugs live.
Now research has shown that these “good housekeeping” techniques not only minimize chemical use, but they are even more effective at controlling pests than hiring an exterminator to spray powerful, toxic pesticides. A single use of such techniques in 13 New York City apartment buildings eliminated substantially more cockroaches and mice than repeated professional applications of pesticides in other buildings, according to a new study by the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Columbia University and the New York City Housing Authority.
In addition, asthma-triggering allergens related to cockroaches were between 40 and 70 percent lower in the residences using preventive techniques than those using standard insecticides, according to the study.
To pest control professionals, these techniques have a name—integrated pest management, or IPM. The idea is simple: make the home an unattractive place for pests by fixing leaky pipes, filling cracks in walls and gaps under baseboards and thoroughly cleaning pest hotspots such as kitchens and bathrooms.
“If you have food, water and you have access, you will have pests,” said Daniel Kass, the study’s lead author and director of environmental surveillance and policy at the New York health department.
This is not the first research demonstrating that IPM is effective, but it is the most extensive study yet showing the benefits of a single treatment.
“What is surprising about this study,” said Kass, “is that a single intervention in kitchens and bathrooms can have lasting effects.”
For the study, an IPM treatment was conducted a single time in 169 apartments in 13 public housing apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Teams trained in integrated pest management inspected the kitchen and bathrooms, filled any holes or cracks in walls and baseboards and thoroughly cleaned problem areas.
Exterminators treated another 111 apartments in nearby buildings using standard chemical procedures, spraying pesticides around baseboards up to two times in the six-month period.
Twice during the study, after three months and six months, researchers trapped insects in glue traps scented with a cockroach attractant.
During both collection periods, 68 percent of the homes receiving IPM had reduced cockroach numbers by at least half, while 48 percent of the pesticide-treated apartments over three months, and 56 percent over six months, had similar reductions, according to the study, which was published in Environmental Health Perspectives in August.
“This was a very good study,” said Barbara Brenner, an associate professor of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. “I think this study is going to be relied on by those who want to advocate for integrated pest management.” Brenner was not involved with Kass’s research, but has conducted other IPM studies.
Karen Reardon, director of communication for RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment), a pesticide industry trade group, said the methods used in the new study “are extremely important and necessary parts of IPM.” But she adds that pesticides are also part of an integrated approach to controlling pests, and stresses that every infestation is different so chemical use should not be off-limits.
Also, it is not always cheap or easy to implement IPM. Initial costs in an apartment building can be two to three times higher than traditional treatments for the first year, according to the New York City study.
“It is more expensive to do what we did,” said Kass, “but we think [IPM] is cheaper in the long term.” Many IPM interventions are permanent. “Once you caulk something, it does not need to be reapplied,” he said. Pesticides however, move around with time, soaking into baseboards, so treatments must be repeated.
The Boston Housing Authority conducted a thorough cost analysis of IPM in an 85-unit apartment complex in 2003. First year costs were $18,000 compared to around $7,000 for traditional pest control. However, in the third year, IPM costs were $200 less than traditional pesticide applications. The savings were mostly made up by a dramatic drop in pest complaints, which saved the housing authority around 150 man-hours.
When you include the health costs of pesticides, said Kass, IPM becomes even cheaper. In 2003, around 1,000 cases of pesticide exposures or poisonings were reported to the New York City poison control center. Half were children under five, and 95 percent of the exposures happened in homes.
And there can be more catastrophic consequences to pesticide use.
“Every year several apartments blow up because of pesticide foggers,” said Kass. The products are highly flammable and can be ignited by pilot lights or electrical sparks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports there were 123 fogger related injuries in New York State between 2001 and 2006.
“People hear by word of mouth that something works, and they don’t stop to think that if it kills the bugs there’s got to be something in it that’s not safe,” said Steve Scholl-Buckwald, director of the Pesticide Action Network of North America based in San Francisco. Many of the chemicals used to kill bugs are nerve poisons that might cause long-term health problems, he said.
The chemical industry says that when used properly, pesticides are safe.
“They have been through a large battery of required tests and they all must be registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” Reardon said. “They have been proven to be safe for use by professionals and consumers.” To use these products properly, Reardon said, “Always read and follow all the label directions about every aspect of product use. A lot of time goes into those labels to assure that the product is used safely and that it is going to take care of your pest.”
Many pesticides, however, have been taken off the market because of health effects, and some of them stick around long after they have been used in a home.
Chlorpyrifos, which was removed from home and garden use by the EPA in 2000 due to a risk of neurological damage, has been linked to lower birth weight and smaller head circumferences in newborns. Chlordane, which was banned in the U.S. in 1988, can last in the soil for decades and can accumulate in the tissues of wildlife.
Researchers showed that these two chemicals were among the three most commonly detected pesticides on the floors of homes. In a sampling of 500 homes nationwide, chlorpyrifos was found in 78 percent and chlordane in 64 percent.
Chlordane’s tendency to stick around is primarily why it was withdrawn from the market, said Dan Stout, an EPA biologist in Washington D.C. who conducted the sampling study. “It just tends to hang around too long.”
When a pesticide is used indoors a lot of it will be absorbed by the carpet, walls and floor. “That house is like a leaky box,” said Stout. “What gets in doesn’t tend to get back out.”
This leads to concentrations of chemicals indoors that are on average 10 to 100 times greater than concentrations outdoors.
“It’s a funny world,” said Stout, “that I would take a poison and put it into my home to control a pest. But on the other hand, if I don’t do that, I can be overrun by insects and pest activity, and that has its own negative repercussions such as asthma triggers. It’s kind of you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t based on current technology. But things have gotten better.”
Scholl-Buckwald points out cities across the country, from San Francisco to New York City, are focusing on reducing pesticide use.
New York City has crafted policies that incorporate integrated pest management into current maintenance programs for city-owned property and has prohibited city agencies from using cancer-causing chemicals.
The chemical industry does not have alternatives to the chemicals prohibited by New York City. “When this list was discussed several years ago,” Reardon said, “we did not believe that there was a scientific basis for creating the list. The [banned] products are registered and approved for safe use by the U.S. EPA and the State of New York.”
Many experts agree with the chemical industry that integrated pest management can’t solve every pest problem.
“There are times when the infestation was so bad you had to complement the integrated pest management with some spraying,” said Brenner.
In milder cases, Kass recommends using covered cockroach baits, gels that can be inserted directly into cracks and old-fashioned mouse traps.
“The main thing to know is that pesticides by definition were designed to kill,” said Scholl-Buckwald, “and it is a myth to think that they only kill bugs. There are very, very effective alternatives out there, but it’s going to take a little looking.”
The alternatives employed by Eddie Rosenthal in his Brooklyn apartment seem to be working so far.
“This so crazy,” he said. “I feel like this is a siege.”
Rosenthal purchased special devices that isolate his bed and night stand from the floor, and he slid them away from the wall. He even put Vaseline on the cord of his bedside lamp so he doesn’t provide a bridge for insects. Diatomaceous earth, a powder made up of fossilized algae, was squeezed from a ketchup bottle into the spaces between walls.
Yet Rosenthal has not ruled out using pesticides.
“Only from desperation and loathing would I have them come into my apartment and spray,” he said.
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.