DDT or no DDT, there is no magic chemical that will rid Hamilton of its bed bug problem.

That’s the take from a local pest control operator who says a repeal on the DDT ban — suggested by a new councillor-elect — wouldn’t make a difference.

And a local environmentalist and chemical scientist say thinking about bringing back powerful and banned chemicals is a bad idea. 

Hamilton is in the midst of a bed bug epidemic. Since 2006, public health officials say, calls to the city have increased about 600 per cent. CityHousing Hamilton will spend $1 million this year alone battling the problem.

But going back to old pesticides won’t fix it, particularly DDT, said Roger Burley, president of Aanteater Pest Control in Hamilton. Bed bugs are resistant to DDT and most other pesticides that used to treat it.

“DDT is really dangerous, and it’s really not effective against bed bugs anyway,” he said.

“I’d love to have a silver bullet that would wipe them right out, but it’s not DDT.”

Councillor-elect Matthew Green of Ward 3 suggested looking at previously used chemicals after hearing from distressed residents during the campaign.

In some apartment buildings and seniors facilities in his ward, 70 per cent of residents have dealt with bed bugs, he said. He’d like the city and province to look at the evidence and see if DDT, which the federal government outlawed in 1972, or another banned substance would eradicate the pests.

“I need to take a closer look at the science, but there are chemical solutions and I’d like to revisit that,” he said.

But every chemical that used to kill bed bugs wouldn’t work anymore, Burley said. It wasn’t DDT that took them to near extinction, but a chemical complex called organophosphates. And bed bugs are immune to that too now, he said.

“Every 10 years, we have to find something new to kill them,” he said.

“They’ve mutated so much. The chemicals we use now are not even related to those chemicals, and we’re actually having some success.”

DDT was a widely used pesticide until about 40 years ago. The federal government banned it because of its impact on wildlife, particularly bird populations.

'We're fighting a pretty good fight'

Little research appears to exist on the toxicology of DDT in limited doses, indoors, to combat bed bugs. American organizations such as the Public Health Institute have come out against its use to combat malaria in third-world countries.

The current chemicals are working, Burley said. The bed bug population has exploded in Hamilton, but anecdotally, it seems to be leveling off, he said. Modern defecants can kill them in 24 hours.

“We’re fighting a pretty good fight,” he said.

Bed bugs aren’t as resistant as they once were because of the pesticides humans have thrown at them, he said. “They’re getting weaker and weaker.”

But “DDT is going to have zero effect. All it’s going to do is a lot of damage.”

'Does some not-so-nice things'

Lynda Lukasik, executive director of Environment Hamilton, agrees. Research shows that bed bugs are immune to DDT, which is “persistent and it bioaccumulates, and it does some not-so-nice things."

There have been long debates about the use of DDT in third world countries combatting malaria. Those in favour of it say the health risks are a worthwhile trade off compared to malaria deaths. Those against say authorities should focus on other methods.

As for using it on bed bugs, it wouldn't be effective, and Lukasik wants to stay away from it.

“On one hand, I can’t imagine (bed bugs) are a nice thing to go through, and I know it’s a huge pressure. But I think we need to figure out more effective ways to manage bed bugs.”

Coun. Sam Merulla of Ward 4 said the notion “needs to be assessed by public health officials, who can separate politics from science and conclude the best practices accordingly.”

Pearson open to 'forwarding a motion'

Coun. Maria Pearson of Ward 10 in Stoney Creek would be open to forwarding a motion to the province.

“The province needs to understand the severity of this problem, and if we keep hammering away with what we should be doing and what we can try, they might have to take a look at that,” she said.

Coun. Tom Jackson of Ward 6 is also a CityHousing Hamilton board member. He's not a fan of the DDT option, but he admires Green's commitment to the issue.

"I welcome councillor-elect Green to this very important discussion table," he said.
"His advocacy is welcomed."

Fred Capretta, a McMaster University chemistry professor, calls DDT “some really nasty stuff,” linked to breast cancer, diabetes and other ailments.

“If you ask for my personal opinion, (repealing the ban) would be a little heavy handed.”

Calling for a pesticide ban repeal is “not something our committee has discussed,” said Donna Eaton, a community legal worker with the Hamilton Legal Clinic and member of the city’s bed bug committee.