Unintended Consequences

Sleep tight.
Don’t let the bedbugs bite!

Until recently most of us had never encountered bedbugs except in this nursery rhythm.  Once vanquished by our grandparents, these creatures have resurfaced from our past.  Now we don’t travel anywhere without fear of bringing them home.

So how did this pest manage to make such a dramatic comeback in such an enlightened and advanced society?

It all comes down to our collective perspective.

Our grandparents didn’t have the luxury of being  environmentalists or living in fear of chemicals.  Typhus, malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis , cholera, polio, and influenza ravaged this country for over a century.

They shared a collective perspective that saving human life was paramount and that some risk of chemical exposure was preferable to disease. They found techniques that were effective and they used them.

In our effort to save the planet we have adopted a collective perspective that espouses preventing change in the environment, which is an inherently dynamic and evolving system.  That this objective is more important than an individual human life. That any chemical exposure, no matter how benign, is unacceptably risky. That green pesticides are somehow without risk and are the only acceptable pest control products even if they are more toxic and less effective.

The law of ‘unintended consequences’ says you can’t possibly know enough about a complex system to recognize all the potential positive or negative results caused by a particular action.

Several years ago, Washingtonians decided to eliminate ‘body gripping traps’ for fur bearing animals and accidentally made it impossible to control moles.

10 years ago, organophosphate pesticides were taken away from the professional pest control industry and bedbugs staged a comeback.  These products were used to control insects like roaches and fleas and many other insect pests that cause illness and damage.  What wasn’t recognized was that these products were also preventing the spread of bedbugs.

The products that replaced organophosphates, permethrins, are not effective against the bed bug.  Current pesticide treatments can take up to six months to be effective.  The one treatment that can eliminate them in a day requires cooking your home with portable furnaces at 130-140 degrees for several hours.  Either approach costs between $500 and $900 per room.

Today there is a big push to eliminate the use of permethrins and force professionals to use mint, orange, eucalyptus, and other plant extracts.  These products can be used effectively but often require weekly maintenance to control many pests and in some respects are more toxic than permethrins.  I’m not advocating the unregulated use of pesticides but, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Even if the chemicals were free, the higher labor costs make the services unaffordable for many homeowners.

I have always said that even without pesticides I would still be able to control pests.  The real question will be,  at what cost?  

What is the human cost of ineffective or unaffordable pest control? What are we controlling now that we won’t be able to control in the future and how many people will be unwilling or unable to afford the services they need? 

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