A newly elected city councillor wants to use an old tool to fight bedbugs: DDT.
Matthew Green, soon to be inaugurated as Ward 3 councillor, says it's time to ask whether the city could use the pesticide to address the bedbug epidemic.
Green says he became aware of the seriousness of Hamilton's bedbug problem while campaigning door-to-door in infested buildings, where he could literally see the insects crawling on some residents' skin.
"It's a crisis for people that are having to live with it. We really have to look at real solutions," he said. "When you see a bedbug actually on somebody — you can't unsee that."
But DDT — or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane — has been banned in Canada since 1972 because of its effect on birds and wildlife. Its byproducts can live for long periods of time in human and animal tissue and the chemical can be passed on to babies in breast milk. According to Health Canada, it can stay in water for as long as 150 years.
"It's a pretty nasty substance," said Fred Capretta, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at McMaster University.
Still, Green says he'd like to file a formal motion asking the province to consider lifting its ban on DDT in order to fight bedbugs.
"We have an obligation to people to make sure that they can live in dignity," he said. "I'll defer to the science. But I'll also put people as a priority."
One of the major issues surrounding bedbug control is how difficult it is to completely wipe them out, especially from high-density, high-occupancy buildings. Even if one unit is treated, bedbugs can easily travel through cracks in the wall, under doors and even inside light switches. They're notoriously difficult to kill and can survive without a blood meal for months.
Capretta says the benefits of using a chemical like DDT would have to be weighed closely against the risks. Some areas of the world still use DDT to control the mosquito population, which in turn lowers malaria rates. However, there are now concerns that some mosquitoes have become resistant to the pesticide.
Still, when it comes to killing insects, DDT does the job. In fact, the disappearance of bedbugs during the early- and mid-20th century has been linked to the widespread use of pesticides like DDT.
"It's been pretty effective at doing this kind of stuff," Capretta said.
Hamilton recently agreed to devote $450,000 to a new anti-bedbug strategy, including creating a new position: a "navigator" who will help residents battle the insects.
According to the city, there are higher incidents of bedbugs where there are greater concentrations of people. The city is currently drafting a "comprehensive bedbug strategy" due in early 2015 that will examine the creation of a bedbug registry.
In 2013, nearly 5,000 work orders were filled by CityHousing Hamilton for bedbug inspections and treatments, and 13,424 phone calls were fielded from residents with bedbug concerns.
Susan Harding-Cruz, vector-borne disease manager with public health, says pesticides (though not DDT) are already among the tools the city uses to fight bedbugs in its housing buildings. Other methods include steam, heat, laundering, vacuuming and education.
"One of the biggest things to do for control is to be aware of what a bedbug is," she said.
Harding-Cruz also added that the fact a councillor is discussing how to handle the issue is important.
"We do need a concerted effort to help better control them. If we have someone on council that's concerned about them, that will be helpful," she said.