Ever since DDT was banned in 1972, the search has been on for safer ways to eliminate and control pests. Many products have been developed using chemicals that are presumed safe for the environment and people, but none has been as effective as DDT, particularly for the dreaded bed bug.

These bugs have made a triumphant return recently, and many people—wary of exposing their families to more chemicals—are asking about non-chemical bed bug treatments.

These do exist, but in most cases they won’t completely eliminate bed bugs from a home. That’s because the bugs are diabolically difficult to find and kill, and any treatment that does not touch the bugs physically is liable to failure.

What is IPM?

IPM stands for Integrated Pest Management, the only sure way to eliminate bed bugs and keep them away. What it indicates is basically that there is no “silver bullet” for the eradication of bed bugs.

Instead, a variety of treatment strategies—chemical and non-chemical bed bug treatments—may be used in various combinations and timelines to kill adult bugs (so they can lay no more eggs) and eggs (so they can’t develop into adult bugs).

In addition, IPM  is a nice way of saying that there’s a lot of work to do that doesn’t involve killing the bugs or eggs themselves. As you saw with identifying bed bugs above, several days’ work could be involved just in checking the bedroom to find bugs. And there are other rooms in the house where they may become a problem.

This is something people will have to get accustomed to—the eternal vigilance required to detect a bed bug infestation quickly and dispatch them before they gain a foothold. There are a few common-sense things you can do to make monitoring for bed bugs a quicker and easier project than the initial search:

  • De-clutter your home to make cleaning easier and give bed bugs fewer places to hide
  • Encapsulate your mattress and box spring to eliminate the interior of the bed as a hiding place
  • Repair any peeling wallpaper (or remove it completely)
  • Seal cracks around baseboards and floors

Non-Chemical Bed Bug Treatments

Most IPM schemes to deal with bed bugs will use some greater or lesser number of chemicals to supplement the non-chemical options below. However, if you are adamant about using no insecticides in your home, some combination of the following options will work to kill all bed bugs, if done properly.

That includes identifying every single nook and cranny where bed bugs live in your home, because why would you invest in these treatments if you’re only going to kill some of the bugs?

Heat

The thermal death point for bed bugs has been determined at 115°F.  Systems have been developed that heat infested rooms to this temperature and beyond for the length of time required to kill all bed bugs, including eggs. Remote sensors are placed in nooks and crannies to make sure the lethal temperatures are attained in bed bug hiding spots.

It’s a neat idea, and comes as close to the fabled “silver bullet” solution as anything. However, the equipment is newer and expensive, and not many pest management companies have invested in it. In addition, some buildings—particularly older ones—are constructed in such a way that the required temperature can’t be maintained perfectly in every area where bed bugs are hiding.

Although the temperature isn’t supposed to damage electronic equipment, many people will be concerned enough about their gadgets that they’ll want to pack up the rooms and remove electronics, fine furniture, and anything else of value. The treatment also takes five or six hours.

Altogether, this is an expensive solution, and not widely available.

Steam

You would think that targeted steam is a good alternative to whole-room heating, because you can apply the steam directly to the places where bugs are. In fact, steam is good for quickly reducing a bed bug population (killing bugs and eggs that you can actually access), but it will not eliminate all bugs.

In addition, steam cleaning requires equipment more specialized than the floor cleaner you may already own. The head must be bigger, and there must be a way to regulate the temperature and pressure. Also, conducting the steaming is hard, painstaking work. The correct amount of heat must penetrate every square inch of the treated area

Cold—pressurized CO2 snow

Bed bugs have also been shown to freeze and die at -108°F. A newer process that only the largest pest management companies have been experimenting with is a technology that shoots pressurized carbon dioxide into cracks and crevices to deliver a freezing vapor to the bugs.

Like the steam method, however, this will not reach all the bugs in all their hiding places. It’s a way to reduce a large infestation to a more manageable one, but will not eradicate all bugs.

Diatomaceous Earth

This material is a drying agent, or dessicant, and is perhaps the only product—chemical or non-chemical—that has a useful residual effect. This means that you can apply the product, and know that it will work for days or weeks afterwards to kill bugs that stumble into it. None of the chemical options have been able to do this with much efficacy.

Diatomaceous Earth works by sticking to the bed bugs and destroying a wax layer on their bodies. This causes them to dehydrate and die.

However, it is a dust, so if you intend to use it regularly, you’ll have to put up with a whitish film around your home, on furniture, floors—wherever you suspect bed bugs might try to hide.

Also bear in mind that there are several different formulations of this product. It is widely used in other applications, including swimming pool filters. That product is NOT appropriate for in-home use. Be sure to read the label carefully before buying to ensure you have the right product.

The Future of Bed Bug Treatments

You can count on intensive research into more and better products to eliminate and control bed bugs as they affect more and more people. You have seen that current strategies are imperfect, and that the easiest way to successfully manage these new-to-us pests combines careful preparation and monitoring with chemical and non-chemical bed bug treatments. But it’s always possible that totally non-chemical solution will present itself, and you can live bed bug-free without exposing your family to any product that you feel is unsafe. Because of the health reasons, it’s doubtful that that a DDT will make a return to the market place as a treatment to the bed bug problem; researchers may discover or invent another, safer pesticide that eliminates the bed bug threat. But until then, we are only left with imperfect treatments.