Safely Using Pesticides for DIY Bed Bug Control
A lot of people prefer using chemical-free approaches to pest control. The problem is that in my experience, it's almost impossible to perform a successful do-it-yourself bed bug control treatment without using at least some insecticide. The only reliable method of completely non-chemical bed bug control is whole-house heat treatment, which many professionals perform using specialized heat treatment equipment; but the equipment is much too expensive and requires far too much training for do-it-yourselfers to use.
So if you want a completely non-chemical bed bug treatment, I strongly suggest that you use your favorite search engine to search for "bed bug control using heat" or "non-chemical bed bug control," followed by your city and state. The chances of your being able to successfully do it yourself completely non-chemically are very slim.
Treating Bed Bugs With Minimal Use of Pesticides
A more realistic approach to bed bug control is to minimize the use of pesticides, not completely avoid them. There are several ways that you can do this.
For example, you can dramatically reduce the amount of pesticides needed by using a bed bug steamer to kill as many bed bugs as possible in the most severely-infested areas, and I recommend that you do so.
Some steam cleaning machines can be used to treat for bed bugs, but the ones designed for bed bug control can penetrate deeply into a mattress, box spring, or structural cracks and crevices. A design-built bed bug steamer is a good way to minimize the use of insecticides, especially in bed rooms, where most people are most concerned about both bed bugs and chemicals.
But there are places that steam can't penetrate that probably will have to be treated with pesticides if your treatment is going to be successful. Steam leaves no residual, so unless you can contact every single bed bug in a house with the steam (which is highly unlikely because they hide in places like wall voids), the few that survive will repopulate the room in short order.
If you want to reduce insecticide use to the bare minimum, but are open to using that bare minimum that's needed to improve your chances of success, then I'm going to make a suggestion that you may think is very odd: Treat the rooms adjacent to the most-infested rooms (both vertically and horizontally) with a residual insecticide before you treat the most-infested room, but treat the most-infested room non-chemically.
The rationale behind this odd advice is twofold. Firstly, the most-infested rooms are likely to be bedrooms, which are also the rooms that most folks who dislike pesticides want to keep chemical-free. The second reason is that the high concentration of bed bugs in and around the bed make it easier to find and treat them all with steam. It's easier to cook a bunch of bed bugs who are congregated in the same place than it is to chase after the stragglers. But by treating all the adjacent rooms with a residual insecticide, you'll also control the ones who do get away.
If you're open to using just a tiny bit of insecticide in the bedrooms, then you can further improve your chances of success by treating just the cracks and crevices around the baseboards, trim, and so forth with an insecticide, using the pin-stream setting on the sprayer. Doing it that way, you'll be using only a few ounces of use-diluted insecticide, and a very tiny amount of active ingredient, but dramatically improving your chances of a successful treatment.
What it comes down to is that the chances of a completely non-chemical, DIY bed bug control treatment being successful are really slim. In the vast majority of cases, some use of pesticides will be necessary. Aiming to minimize pesticide use and to use those insecticide products carefully and judiciously is a much more realistic approach than trying to control bed bugs completely non-chemically.
Using Pesticides Safely
The thing to remember about pesticides is that they are designed to be poisons. They're also designed to not be harmful to the human applicator when used in accordance with the label instructions: but when the applicator violates those instructions and applies the pesticide improperly, all bets are off. So always approach pesticides with respect and use them safely.
The EPA has a very useful pamphlet for consumers that provides quite a bit of information about how to safely choose and use pesticides. I highly recommend that you download it here and read it thoroughly before you begin planning your DIY bed bug control treatment.
The Label is the Law
Before we move on to specific safety precautions and practices, let's talk about the most important safety rule of all: The Label is the Law. This is one of the first things that apprentice exterminators learn, and it applies to do-it-yourselfers as well.
In the United States and most other countries, using a pesticide in violation of the label instructions is a violation of law that is punishable by fines or imprisonment. If the improper use causes damage, there can also be civil liability.
In addition to being the law, however, pesticide labels contains a great deal of helpful information about the proper mixing and use of the product. The people who wrote the label wanted it to be as helpful as possible, so read it and make sure that you understand it before using the pesticide product.
Here are some of the specific things that you can learn from pesticide label.
Pesticide Signal Word
Every pesticide label has a signal word that helps you know how hazardous or toxic the product is. These signal words are:
CAUTION. Pesticides with a CAUTION signal word are slightly toxic or relatively non-toxic. In general, these are the pesticides that you should choose whenever possible.
WARNING. Pesticides with a WARNING signal word are moderately toxic. You should avoid using these products whenever less-toxic pesticides that will do the job are available.
DANGER or DANGER - POISON, with or without a skull and crossbones. These pesticides are highly toxic and/or otherwise very hazardous (corrosive, severe skin irritant, eye hazard, etc.). You should completely avoid these pesticides. Professionals don't use them unless they absolutely have to, and neither should you.
Please download and read the Pesticide Signal Words flyer for more information about signal words and their importance.
The target pests are the organisms the pesticide is designed to control. They are usually listed in the "Directions for Use" section of the label. Obviously, you should make sure that bed bugs are listed. Also, quite often the dosages and application methods are different for different insects. Make sure to follow the instructions for the insect that you are treating.
The label provides safety information to help protect the person applying it, other people, and the environment. These instructions may include protective equipment needed (respirators, gloves, eye protection, etc.), information necessary for protecting the environment, proper disposal methods, and other safety-related information.
The signal word is often included in this section, as well, especially for products labeled "CAUTION." First aid instructions are also listed here, as well as information for doctors and hospitals in some cases. You should read and understand this information before starting to use the pesticide, and bring the label with you to the hospital if you suspect that the pesticide has made someone sick.
Directions for Use
Pesticide labels include information about how to use the pesticides. This information includes dilution instructions for pesticides that must be diluted, application methods and equipment, dosage rates, and techniques. Be sure to read and understand these instructions before starting your bed bug control treatment.
Be aware that the same insecticide may be used for many different pests, and different pests may have different instructions as regard things like dilution, dosage, method of application, and equipment required. Make sure that you follow the instructions for bed bugs if multiple pests are listed.
In addition, make sure to follow the instructions for the place and items you are treating. There probably will be a different dosage and application rate for an insecticide when it's used around the exterior of a house to control earwigs than there is when it's used on a mattress in a bedroom to treat bed bugs. So make sure that you are following the proper instructions for the pest, place, and items that you are treating.
Pesticide Application Safety Equipment
The specific safety equipment that you'll need depends on the pesticides that you're using and the label instructions. Be sure to have all the required safety equipment before starting to use the pesticides. Some of the more common safety equipment needed to apply pesticides are:
Pesticide Respirator. Pesticides whose labels require respiratory protection usually require an organic vapor respirator. A dust filter may also be required if using dust insecticides. Even if the label doesn't require respiratory protection, I recommend using a respirator any time you're working with insecticide dusts because even non-toxic dusts are respiratory irritants.
Gloves. The labels for many pesticides, especially liquid insecticides that require mixing or dilution, require that the applicator wear chemical-resistant gloves. Even if the label doesn't specifically require them, it's not a bad idea to use gloves in any case, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Eye Protection. Most pesticide labels require that the applicator wear eye protection because almost all pesticides are irritating or can cause serious eye damage if they get into your eyes. I prefer wrap-around protective lenses because they protect my eyes from insecticide that may splash back at me from the sides.
Protective Coveralls. Very few pesticide labels actually require them, but disposable coveralls are a great idea when treating for bed bugs. In addition to helping to keep your clothes clean and reducing pesticide exposure, they help prevent pesticides from crawling up into your clothes. If you decide to wear them, take them off and bag them for disposal before you leave a heavily-infested room.
Knee Pads. I don't think I've ever come across a pesticide label that requires knee pads, but they're a good thing to have when you're treating for bed bugs. You'll be spending some time on your knees treating the baseboards and furniture, so you may as well protect them.
Other Safety Precautions
Mixing Pesticides. If the insecticide that you're using requires dilution or mixing, follow the label instructions to the letter. Do not use a stronger or weaker concentration than the label specifies. Using a stronger mix will not make the insecticide more effective. In fact, it may make it less effective because it may repel the insects. If they never touch the insecticide, they won't be poisoned. Using a weaker mix, on the other hand, will likely result in treatment failure. It also may encourage insecticide resistance, making the bed bugs even harder to treat the next time around.
Obviously, if you use a measuring cup to measure out the insecticide, never use that cup to measure food. In fact, I suggest that you throw it out once you no longer need it.
Absorption Hazards. Pesticides can be absorbed through the mouth, lungs, and skin, so be careful to avoid absorption through any of these routes of entry. Some important rules to follow are:
No Smoking, Eating or Drinking in Your Work Area. If you want to take a break to eat, drink, or smoke, do it in another room or outside. Thoroughly wash your hands and face before eating, drinking, or smoking.
Potty Safety. Wash your hands before and after using the toilet. Skin in the groin area is very sensitive, and pesticide absorption can be very rapid there. So wash before and after using the rest room.
Decontaminate Yourself. Take a shower after using pesticides, and wash your pesticide-contaminated clothes separately from your family's laundry. Obviously, don't hug people, cradle babies, or otherwise have unnecessary contact with others while wearing pesticide-contaminated clothing.
Electrical Safety. Using a dust insecticide to treat around electrical outlets and switches is sometimes necessary for bed bug control. Here are some important safety precautions:
Turn Off the Electricity. Before drilling any holes or removing any faceplates, use the circuit breakers to turn off the electricity to the room being treated. But don't assume that it's actually been turned off. Not all breaker panels are labeled properly, so be careful.
Use a Non-Conductive Tip on Insecticide Dusters. Some insecticide dusters (especially high-quality ones like the Centrobulb Duster) have metal tips. This is great for durability, but not so great when working around electrical outlets. If your duster has a metal tip, attach a non-conductive extension to it when working around electrical fixtures. A small length of rubber or plastic tubing (like aquarium tubing) works well.
Be Careful of Liquids. If you're using any liquid insecticides in your bed bug control treatment, don't use them around or in the electrical fixtures. Use only dust insecticides to treat around electrical outlets and switches.
Pesticide Disposal. Properly dispose of any extra insecticides and the containers they came in. If you think you may need the pesticide again, you can safely store it out of reach of children and in a secure area until its shelf life has run out. Otherwise, consult the label and your local environmental or hazardous waste control authorities for proper disposal instructions.
One More Thing...
I spent many years in the pest control business, and I've seen quite a few chemicals that were once thought to be non-toxic to humans later found to cause cancer or other serious diseases. Even some naturally-derived pesticide products that were once quite popular have been withdrawn from the market due to toxicity concerns.
Long story short: Don't get sloppy. Treat every pesticide with respect and caution, no matter how "safe" it's believed to be. Always treat all pesticides as if they were more toxic than they claim to be, because history has shown that some of them have been.