Cockroaches and Bedbugs and Toxins, Oh My!


You've heard the old joke: After the nuclear holocaust, what will be left? Answer: Just two things - cockroaches and Cher. We're happy that Cher will live on, but getting rid of roaches without overloading your environment with toxic chemicals is a daunting task.

If you're not averse to the killing, you can fill a spray bottle with simple soap and water, or you add a few drops of essential oils like tea tree oil or citronella to a bottle of water. Spray the roaches when you see them. This coats their little bodies so they can't breathe and they suffocate to death. It's not nearly as gross or messy as the crunch when you step on them.

Prevention is always easier than eradication, so simple things can help deter roaches in the first place. Like, cleanliness. If you're an OU student, throw out the damn pizza boxes right away. That kind of cardboard is not recyclable anyway (way too much grease), so there's no benefit to keeping it around, and it serves as a giant roach magnet. So do dirty dishes, which are full of tasty morsels to attract roaches, ants and other insects. That means that you actually have to wash the dishes stacked in your kitchen. Kitchen clutter in general makes great roach breeding grounds. One open cereal box can bring a host of insects. Roaches also get thirsty, so it's helpful to dry your sink after you wash the dishes. And check your pipes: the moisture from leaky pipes is another roach magnet.

Roaches dislike catnip, so you can scatter some of that behind your refrigerator and stove, back in your cabinets. This has to be refreshed occasionally, more often if you have a cat that likes to get high. Bay leaves are less fun for your cat, but they work the same way for roaches. You'll want to buy these in bulk whenever possible, as they are quite expensive in their little jars at the supermarket.

There are well-known chemical solutions, like strips the roaches stick to or roach hotels, where they "check in but they don't check out." Putting aside concerns of toxic chemicals around your food area, what exactly is the rationale about placing an object in your kitchen that attracts roaches? Sure, they die when they get there, but their sensitive little noses can smell that stuff from far and wide, and it brings many more into your kitchen than would otherwise be there in the first place.

Some of those commercial roach-attracting/killing products are also toxic to your pets. One non-commercial concoction that works is to mix boric acid with powdered sugar and sweep it into the nooks and crannies around your floors. Roaches eat this and bring it back to their nests to feed the stay-at-home roaches. And then they all die.

One side note: 20-Mule Team Borax, is an inexpensive, completely non-toxic laundry additive available in the supermarket. It's safe for baby diapers, but it's absolutely lethal for insects. A handful of the detergent scattered on your rug the same way you would scatter seed works its way into the carpet, becomes invisible after a day or two, and stays there, even through vacuuming, sometimes for months at a time. It will kill off even the biggest flea infestations, and roaches don't like it much either.

Even more disgusting than roaches in the kitchen are bed bugs in the bedroom. Nothing's a bigger buzz kill at the end of a hot date than watching your friend too distracted by scratching bed bug bites for anything else. And sadly, sleeping around is no solution. If you suspect you have bedbugs in your bed, the worst thing you can do is go sleep somewhere else; you're very likely to bring them with you.

A lot of different bugs behave like bed bugs, but are something else, like scabies, so your first order of business is to make sure that any infestation actually is bed bugs. Take a sample to an OU entomologist or a local pest control company. If you are in a multi-unit building, there's a good chance that all of your neighbors share in this delight, and the whole building is going to have to get onboard with treatment.

If you are at all prone to use chemical sprays, don't. Bed bugs are tough, even for professionals wielding toxic chemicals, and current generations of bugs have evolved to be chemically resistant, making them all the harder to get rid of. And any attempts you make on your own to spray will only make it worse. You're not likely to kill the bugs, and you are likely to spread them out and make a professional, costly, toxic chemical treatment a necessity.

There are two non-toxic methods that are often used to get rid of bedbugs. Often people suggest tea tree oil or lavender oil sprays. The bugs don't like them, but they can live for a year without eating, so in the long term the essential-oil route is really useless.

What does work is a food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE). This is not a repellent. Although non-toxic to humans and animals, it acts like shards of glass to bed bugs. They can't fly, so if you apply the stuff around the foot of your bed, they have to walk through it, and it slices and dices them to death. For a detailed description of how this all works, you can check, or just google DE. Locally, White's Mill in Athens carries DE and the friendly staff there can advise you on the best way to apply it.

Some people reflexively want to toss their exposed linens and clothing. This is an unnecessary waste and, if done incorrectly, a big mistake! You may spread the bugs around the house dragging your bed linens to the garbage. Anything you're going to throw out needs to be bag up in plastic bags where the infestation occurred to avoid spreading the bugs. Go ahead and take your linens and anything else soft in your bedroom, put it all in a plastic bag, and carry it to the laundry. All you have to do is wash it thoroughly in hot soap and water. Adding some chlorine bleach to the wash helps. Run it through twice if you want. Dry it on the highest heat you can. Then look in your drawers to see if you see any bugs or eggs in there. If so, take everything out, wash the heck out of it, and scrub down the drawers with soap and very hot water before you put everything back. You can apply DE around your dresser (or any other furniture) as well.

One surely non-toxic but somewhat more complicated and expensive bed bug killer is steam. Most commercial bug chasers offer steamers as a first step in bed bug eradication, but they often follow up with toxic chemical applications. When you use the DE solution, you'll want to finish off bug infestations by steam cleaning your carpets. You can also use steam to clean your mattress and other soft furniture. It's important that the steamer be extremely hot - at least 120 degrees F - and the application be sudden. Gradual warming gives bugs a chance to escape, but a sudden blast of hot steam knocks them dead on the spot. You'll also want to use a "dry steam cleaner," as the excess moisture can turn into mold if you're not careful.

A great online article that gets into all of the nuances of steam cleaning is "Killing Them Softly: Battling Bed Bugs in Sensitive Accounts" at

I didn't know about alternatives back when I was in college and lived in an old, porous wooden shack on the Gulf of Mexico, so I went for a big can of Raid. In Florida, the roaches are monsters; they grow up to two and three inches long, and some of them fly. My little house was infested when I moved in. So I sprayed and sprayed. All I ever succeeded in doing was cornering them in my living room. I finally gave in and let them have the cabinet. It was disgusting.

There's one thing all these solutions have in common that's different than buying a big can of Raid: they take time. We imagine that only "better killing through chemistry" really works, but it's not true. Natural methods are gradual, but gradually they work. It's well worth the extra effort to live in a bug-free environment that isn't hazardous to your health or the health of Mother Earth.

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