Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bed bugs go to school

Treating school classrooms for bed bugs should be
a last resort, and only if the pests are known to be present.
A recent incident in a New Jersey public school made headlines, and got me thinking about right and wrong ways to deal with bed bugs in schools.  In the story, two bedbugs were found on the book bag of a student on a school bus, resulting in an immediate inspection of the school and "fumigation" of the bus.

Without actually detecting bed bugs in the classroom, the story says that a "specialized exterminator" (I wish we could lose that name) was called in to treat the surfaces where bed bugs could take refuge in the affected class. Later, a bed bug sniffing dog was called in to clear the classroom. Similar incidents with similar aggressive responses are being reported throughout the country.

If you read the story you can see the incident from the perspective of a school superintendent. The superintendent wants to be able to get up in front of the media and confidently say, “We’ve taken care of the problem.” To this superintendent, this meant that they had involved the highest authority to affirm that the school viewed the problem seriously (State Board of Health—who likely didn't really want to get involved) and gotten professionals to identify the pest and deal with it quickly (by “fumigation”).

This may be good PR, but it's not the ideal IPM response. Eventually schools, I think, will find this sort of approach unsustainable. This will occur when bed bugs start showing up more routinely in schools. State Boards of Health will no longer accept calls about bed bugs, the maintenance department’s pest control budget will become strained from all the extra, premium-priced service calls, teachers will get tired of having their classrooms “sealed off” unnecessarily, and those dogs will get doggone'd expensive. And inevitably, parents will soon begin to worry about their kids' exposure to pesticides.

The main problem with the approach reported in story is that some schools are over-reacting to what will certainly become a relatively routine pest problem. Schools want a guarantee that they are bed bug-free, something that is very difficult in real life.  Professionals know that if they really treated every surface where bed bugs could hide, it would require a major investment of labor and time (one I hope you would be charging for). Such efforts would certainly not be warranted without first determining that there was an actual infestation.

By the way, this brings up our use of the terms infested and infestation. I think it’s better, when it comes to bed bugs, if we reserve use of these terms to situations where bed bugs have settled in and are reproducing as a result of a consistent and available nighttime food supply—something that will probably not be very common in the average public school. I recommend that we start referring to isolated bed bug sightings as detections, not infestations.

We aren’t told what “fumigation” referred to in this story, though it was certainly not a real fumigation job involving fumigant gases. At its most harmless level, the treatment was likely an application of a non-residual, contact insecticides to cracks and crevices around the backpack areas and the student's desk. It might have been an aerosol ULV application to the bus (not very effective against bed bugs in good harborage). At it's worst, the treatment may have been haphazard spot treatments with residual pyrethroids, which could easily result in contamination of surfaces where kids might have contact.  None of these treatments, as they are commonly applied, provide an absolute guarantee of no more bed bugs. 

A school district in Texas recently went through a similar incident in several of its classrooms. The response of this district, well trained in IPM, was to do a visual inspection of the room, alert the parents of the child, and have their pest management contractor put out two carbon dioxide bed bug monitors over the weekend to confirm that bed bugs were not present. Monitoring, not pesticide application, is probably the best first response to reports of “hitchhiking” bed bugs on a school backpack.

This same school district has determined that in cases where the children are likely to continue to come to school with bed bugs, their backpacks will be zip-loc™ bagged during the day as a precaution. This district recently held a district-wide training for its school nurses about bed bugs, and also sends informational letters out to parents in classrooms where bed bugs have been detected.

We're still learning about the best ways to deal with bed bugs in schools, and doubtless we will come up with better protocols. In the meantime, we should avoid over-reacting to what will become an increasingly routine problem.  And this means educating superintendents and school principals about the facts of life when it comes to bed bugs.

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