Bedbugs, public policy, and relative risk assessment

Lynne Kiesling

Over the past few weeks I’ve been paying some attention to the increasing, and spreading, bedbug infestations in the U.S. I’m not particularly squeamish, but bedbugs are rapacious colony-dwelling critters that can survive for a year without food, feast on the blood of sleeping animals (humans YUM YUM), and colonize easily in mattresses and box springs. They spread due to population density and mobility, and their small size and imperviousness to eradication means that even good hygiene is not enough to prevent infestation.

As infestations move out of hotels and apartment buildings in densely-populated areas like Manhattan and into schools and nursing homes across the country, more and more people are looking for effective ways to eradicate them, short of burning all of an infested person’s bedding and clothing (a decidedly medieval approach!). Pesticides that are currently legal are no longer effective, and techniques like steaming and freezing are not feasible for large items like mattresses and box springs.

In part, this wave of bedbug infestations is an unintended consequence of environmental regulations banning certain pesticides, particularly DDT, that used to be used on bedbugs and were quite effective. Over time, bedbugs have evolved resistance to the pesticides used since the DDT ban.

The bedbug resurgence illustrates the challenges of doing relative risk assessment in regulatory policy. I’ve painted a pretty disgusting, but accurate, picture of a bedbug infestation, but it’s also the case that pesticides have toxicity and duration effects, particularly on vulnerable populations like children and the elderly; however, I would make the normative claim that we want to protect children and the elderly from bedbug infestations too. Which harm is bigger: the harm from a bedbug infestation, or the harm from exposure to chemicals to eradicate the bedbugs?

The uniformity of our environmental regulations do not allow for such relative risk assessments, and the EPA makes the decision on our behalf that the harm from chemical exposure is bigger. What if they are wrong? From my perspective and with my preferences, they are wrong — I think the contagion and propagation effects in addition to the disgustingness of an infestation cranks up the cost of an infestation relative to the cost of a concentrated, careful application of chemicals to eradicate them. Others certainly assess those relative risks differently, because risk preferences are subjective and vary a lot from person to person and place to place. But a uniform, federal-level regulation does not admit for differential costs and benefits across people and places.

Jonathan Adler tackles some of these relative risk assessment issues in a post yesterday, but he focuses more on a specific issue of federalism:

Health officials in Ohio and several other states believe that the risks posed propoxur are outweighed by the severity of the bedbug problem.  The EPA disagrees.  The EPA has the legal authority to preempt state preferences, and is often obliged to under existing statutes, but should it?  Why should the EPA’s assessment of the relevant risk-risk trade-offs override those of the states? …

If local communities wish to strike a different risk balance than the feds, the EPA should not stand in their way.  It is one thing for the EPA to inform local choices, and help clarify the relevant health trade-offs, quite another to impose one set of health preferences on the nation as a whole.  If EPA’s resistance to propoxur was motivated by spillover concerns, such as potential groundwater pollution that could cross state lines, the federal rule would make sense.   But it is not and does not.  This is precisely the sort of environmental problem which state and local preferences should control.

Jonathan also mentions another unintended consequence of such uniform, stringent regulation on indoor pesticides: to deal with bedbug infestations, some people are resorting to pesticides meant for outdoor use, with deleterious health effects.

Sadly, I think Glenn Reynolds has a point when he observes that “The real lesson of the bedbug epidemic is this: Once, the government’s primary role was protecting us from things like that. Now its primary role is stopping us from fixing them.”


5 thoughts on “Bedbugs, public policy, and relative risk assessment

  1. This trade-off reminds me of the Peruvian ban on chlorination of water shortly before the outbreak of cholera. Fewer deaths from cancer, more deaths from cholera.

  2. We spent millions on research for new drugs. Why don’t we invest some money into a new research of pesticides? It is well known that DDT is very disruptive to human health but they could try to modify it for some diluted sample… Bedbug is not very popular issue but it is quite tangible one…

  3. Bedbugs are powerfully resistant to DDT. Exterminators stopped using DDT on them in the 1950s. Recent research shows that all populations of the things are powerfully resistant, and some completely immune. Consequently, use of DDT would be a bad idea.

    DDT can’t be diluted enough that it is not a threat to entire ecosystems. DDT bioaccumulates from the lowest to the highest trophic levels, magnifying doses by as much as ten million times. Dangers of DDT suggest it’s a bad idea to bring it back, too.

    What makes anyone think that a careful risk analysis, and cost analysis, were not done?

  4. By the way, you’re free to use propoxur if I’m free to sue you for unintended downstream effects — right?

    If we do away with safety rules, who pays for damages?

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