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Extreme Fight: Dogs, Chemicals Take On Bedbugs
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Extreme Fight: Dogs, Chemicals Take On Bedbugs

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Extreme Fight: Dogs, Chemicals Take On Bedbugs
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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Now, let's get into the science of extermination. Generations of Americans may have grown up thinking that the expression, don't let the bedbugs bite was a cute saying, but of course, we've been reminded recently, that bedbugs are very real - and a growing problem across the country. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports that some people are going to extremes to get rid of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Trust me, if this dog visits you, you don't want her to sit down. That's how Dixie shows her handler that she's found live bedbugs. Today, the beagle-Jack Russell mix is at a private school outside of Baltimore, where a few weeks ago some students complained of itchy bites. Bedbugs are the prime suspect.

LYNN MCKAIN: My thought was, oh my goodness, what are the parents going to think, this is really a scary thing. What's going to happen to our boarding program?

SHOGREN: Lynn McKain, the school's communication director, hopes Dixie will provide proof that if there was a bedbug problem, it's gone.

Dixie goes to work. First in an empty room, where the boys who first got bitten used to live. She doesn't find anything, so she goes across the hall to room number six.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG SNIFFING)

BLAINE LESSARD: Dixie, seek right there.

SHOGREN: After just seconds of sniffing, Dixie sits down on a black bathmat lying on the floor at the head of a bunk bed. She points her nose at the mattress. Blaine Lessard is Dixie's handler.

LESSARD: The only reason for her to sit on the job like that is when she finds bugs.

MCKAIN: That's not what we wanted to hear.

Lessard says Dixie sniffs as many as 600 apartments or hotel rooms a week.

LESSARD: She finds bugs anywhere from three to 10 times a day.

SHOGREN: The bedbug menace is growing in homes, hospitals, movie theaters and hotels across the country. And getting rid of the pests is getting harder because they're growing resistant to treatments.

Exterminator Ken McDowell says combining steam cleaning, vacuuming and pesticides usually works well.

KEN MCDOWELL: You have to realize what success means with bedbugs. Sometimes we'll eliminate them on the first treatment. Most of the time it does require the follow-up.

SHOGREN: But when it comes to bed bugs, most people aren't patient. So exterminators are heating infested rooms up to 130 degrees and spraying them with carbon dioxide snow to freeze the insects to death. And some people are so desperate that they're using toxic chemicals, or combining treatments in dangerous ways. In Ohio, some apartments caught fire after people used alcohol and pesticides.

MATT BEAL: The emotional toll that it can take on people, when you can't get them under control, is quite severe.

SHOGREN: Matt Beal, who heads Ohio's bedbug program, says that's why his state is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to temporarily allow the use of a pesticide called Propoxur. A few years ago, the EPA banned Propoxur for indoor use. But you can still buy leftover stocks online and some exterminators still have some.

Beal says Propoxur does something other chemicals don't.

BEAL: Once it's dry it'll keep on killing the insects as the eggs hatch, and as they move across where the insecticide was placed.

SHOGREN: But Propoxur's staying power is part of what makes it hazardous for children, according to Steve Owens who heads the EPA's pesticide program.

STEVE OWENS: It's a very toxic compound. It can create a nervous system problem for kids, everything from dizziness to diarrhea to vomiting to difficulty in breathing.

SHOGREN: Even so, the EPA is considering allowing some use of Propoxur, if there is no chance a child could come into contact with it. That's how pressured the EPA feels to help people suffering from bedbugs.

Owens understands their anxiety firsthand. Several years ago his son got bitten in his own bed.

OWENS: The thing about the bedbugs is that they don't carry disease. But they drink blood.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OWENS: They're not very pleasant little creatures.

SHOGREN: But Owens says Propoxur is not a silver bullet, nor are any of the other hazardous pesticides that are increasingly being offered as magic cures for bedbugs. The EPA is taking legal action against some companies that have been using such pesticides and sending families to hospitals.

Owens says parents should beware: These chemicals are much more dangerous for children than bedbugs.

Elizabeth Shogren. NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Okay, the EPA may be concerned about these pesticides, but other federal officials now have a personal reason to worry about bedbugs.

USAID, the government agency that provides development aid around the world, confirmed on Friday that its offices in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. have been invaded.

This came out after a blog got a hold of a memo that the agency sent out to employees. The memo says that the bedbugs are restricted to one office suite, and the agency is sending in exterminators. But the accompanying information sheet is unlikely to put employees at ease, because is says, quote, "Bedbugs are extraordinarily competent as human parasites."

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