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The 20th Century: Severe Infestations

During the early 1900s began to thrive year-round with the inventions of electric fans, cast-iron radiators and forced air heating. Infestations became so bad that it was estimated that one-third of all dwellings in the major cities had infestations. These pests became numerous; they were often seen traveling from house to house along piping, gutters and walls. Early formulas to kill them often contained pyrethrum powder, which was dispensed between sheets. Strict disinfestation protocols were also put into place to help prevent people from transporting the bugs from one house to another. The problem was so severe that England made families go to cleansing stations to disinfect their personal belongings using steam. Larger personal property items such as furniture were placed in vans, which were then fumigated using hydrogen cyanide. Many property owners in Germany demanded a written report from an exterminator for proof that the residence being vacated was free of any signs of infestation.

The War Years

Wartime also brought troubling times as the bugs were easily spread between soldiers on backpacks, belts and helmets. The infestations became so abundant during World War II that families of soldiers pressured Congress into taking measures to stop infestations. After hearings were held, barracks begin being fumigated using hydrogen cyanide. It was shortly after this that DDT was found to be safer and more cost-efficient in controlling military infestations. At this time they were commonly found in businesses, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, restaurants and other public places much like what is occurring again today. Measures were taken to help control the population such as replacing wood bed frames with metal frames and careful and frequent examinations of clothing and beds.

History of Insecticides

Insecticides also have an interesting and long history that include early concoctions of dust, liquids and gases, many being toxic to both people and bugs. Early concoctions were often prepared by druggists, which included mercury and arsenic compounds mixed with alcohol, water or turpentine. They were then applied using a brush or eyedropper where the bugs were found. Poison was a popular treatment, which was actually Mercury chloride, a very dangerous compound. Pyrethrum was also commonly used as an insecticide, which was often prepared into powders and sprays. Gasoline, alcohol, turpentine and benzene were widely used to spray onto beds, but their effects were short-lived, working only for a day as they did not kill eggs and often did not directly come into contact with the live bugs. Therefore, this required numerous follow-up treatments. Because early pesticide treatments contained no residual action, these treatments were often only effective when infestations were in their early stages.

Fumigation Methods

For heavy infestations, fumigants were often used. These included using sulfur, which was burned, producing sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide. This method involved placing the sulfur into a kettle, placing the kettle into a larger container to catch the molten and prevent a fire and setting this in the middle of the room. A cup of alcohol was then added to the burning sulfur. Following this fumigation method came the hydrocyanic acid fumigation method, which was highly effective although more costly and dangerous. The entire home had to be vacated when using this method and was best performed by professional exterminators.

The Rise of DDT

When DDT was discovered and developed, it was solely used by the armed forces to protect soldiers from mosquitoes, flies and disease-carrying lice. After testing it for its effectiveness at killing bed bugs, it was deemed to be the new potent weapon against these pests. DDT was very effective due to its lasting ability to kill long after the pesticide had dried on surfaces, which was reported to last for at least six months. DDT also only required one application to effectively destroy all the bugs and hatching eggs and it was inexpensive, making it available to anyone. This pesticide was so effective that within five years of beginning its use, these pests were nearly eradicated. However, reports began to appear about the bugs becoming resistant to DDT, especially in tropical regions. Although infestations were no longer troublesome, because of the resistance reports on DDT, the National Pest Control Association began to recommend the use of Malathion as a replacement to DDT. Other alternatives included lindane, diazinon and chlordane. These pesticides also only required one treatment to be effective.

History of Bed Bug Traps

Devices were also commonly used throughout history for trapping the bugs.. Pans filled with kerosene or oil were placed under the legs of beds to prevent the bugs from climbing up into the bed. Devices that provide similar effects are still being marketed today.

The Use of Heat

Another method that has been used for centuries includes the use of heat. Boiling water was sometimes used to scald the pests. The first portable steamer to control bugs was patented in 1873, which consisted of a spout that emitted steam, which was moved over areas where bugs were suspected of hiding. Today, these steamers are more sophisticated and often used by professional exterminators.

Lessons for Today

With the recent return of infestations and knowing their history, prevention and detection requires skilled exterminators as well as public education. One of the most important aspects of management throughout history has been the exterminator’s thoroughness when using pesticide sprays. Skilled exterminators find every possible hiding place of bugs, which often involves taking beds apart, removing dresser drawers, rolling rugs back and taking pictures down from walls. They may also pry loose moldings and inspect books and floor lamps as well.

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