deep inside U2’s late 1980s album Rattle & Hum a preaching Bono apologizes to
the crowd for lecturing them on the evils of apartheid. “Am I buggin’
you? Don’t mean ta bug ya. Okay, Edge, play the blues.”
In a welcome change for the next album, Bono became “The Fly”.
worries, Bono. At least you are a not a bed bug. Supposedly, 1 in 15
people in America’s largest city, New York, have had to deal with the
microscopic pests, which are enjoying a renaissance of sorts. They have
claimed the couches and bedding of tens of thousands of people in the
NYC area, and are spreading throughout the country. Perhaps they are
attracted to all the jobs?
likely. They’re just moving back after a long vacation. Remember DDT?
Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller was given a Nobel prize in 1948 for
figuring out that dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane was good for killing
arthropods. First synthesized in the 19th century, it and another
chemical, chlordane, were largely responsible for kicking the bugs out
of bed for good.
In 1962, Rachel Carson released her book Silent Spring.
She was to pesticides what Ralph Nader was to cars. Both DDT and
chlordane were swiftly removed from use after it was shown to directly
harm bird populations as the chemical had the side-effect of thinning
eggshells. The likely clincher for its ban in 1972 was the decline in
bald eagle populations. Further research suggested that organochlorine
compounds, which are toxins, can have potentially serious health effects
to humans, possibly causing cancer, diabetes, and endocrine disruption.
because bed bugs feed on blood and aren’t attracted to bait, they are
extremely difficult to eradicate. They can jump aboard clothing or
luggage and hitch a ride across town, or across the ocean. The
proliferation of international air travel has helped spread them
throughout the U.S., and over time bed bugs have also evolved: New York
City bugs are 264 times as resistant to a common treatment,
deltramethran, than the bugs in, say, Florida.
DDT, bed bugs were common throughout the U.S. It’s part of their
natural habitat. Aside from some icky bleeding and itchy bites, bed bugs
don’t often cause serious disease. But there’s another parasite that
hasn’t yet returned to it’s native habitat that does. Malaria is making
its own long comeback after being nearly wiped out after World War II.
The same DDT that knocked down bed bugs also went a long way to
eradicating the parasites that now kill and plague millions in Africa,
Asia, and elsewhere with a laundry list of suffering that includes
fever, shivering, joint pain, vomiting convulsions, brain damage,
vomiting, and anemia.
was rampant in the U.S., and helps explain why people were fond of
vacating Washington, D.C. in the summer because of the heat and the
malarial waters of the Potomac.
draining and vast improvements in sanitation helped tamp down malaria
as much as DDT did in many parts of the country. But DDT was largely
the reason for the disappearance of malaria in the South by 1951.
in Africa, sanitation and containment efforts were working in the early
20th century. Now, the continent is stumbling backward and only
investment from outside is keeping casualties down. Treatment has gotten
better as drugs containing ancient anti-malarial compounds are
administered more effectively. These include the herb Artemisia and
quinine (British colonists liked their gin-and-tonics for a good
reason). Artemisinin alone can sweep the body clear of malaria, but
concern about the potential catastrophe from malaria building resistance
to this chemical has prompted the use of partner drugs that finish the
treatment started by artemisinin-based compounds.
are worried for good reason. Chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine
are no longer effective on common malarial parasites, and in 2009,
researchers published the first distinct evidence that malaria is
becoming more resistant
to the most common treatment: artesunate, which is derived from
artemisinin, and mefloquine, a quinine analogue. Their findings,
centered on lengthening treatment timelines in Southeast Asia, could
spell disaster if resistant strains make their way to Africa.
we still don’t know how artemisinin works, which complicates efforts to
modify the chemical and stay ahead of malarial mutation.
most unfortunate thing, however, is that when properly used, DDT is
effective against malaria. It caused such havoc in the 1950s because, in
addition to government use to control disease vectors, farmers were
indiscriminately using tremendous amounts of the toxin for agricultural
pest control. DDT is apparently still used for agriculture in North
Korea, and about 5,000 tons are still legally used worldwide to help
control mosquito populations.
methods should still be aggressively pursued, however. DDT and other
organochlorine compounds are still harmful to the environment and because they are hydrophobic, can last up to 30 years. This insolubility means they are prone to concentrating throughout the food chain, showing up on top tier predators.
our genetic expertise improves, we will someday be able to attack the
core of Plasmodium strains and control malaria at the source. Until
then, we’ll either have to invent a better DDT or simply grin and bear the incursion of the bed bugs. Harmless,
they may be, but few critters bug me as much these nasty little things.
Predictably, The Fly is now buggin’ us about malaria. But it’s only a matter of time before bed bugs bug him, too.