“It’s like having tiny little vampires in your house,” said Andy Linares, owner of the New York-based Bug Off Pest Control Center.
And their antics are not limited to the comfort of your bedroom. Bedbugs can take over residential and office buildings, hotels and movie theaters. A recent infestation shut down two popular retail stores in New York City — the Hollister flagship store in SoHo and the Southstreet Seaport Abercrombie and Fitch — and a Brooklyn hospital opted to fumigate a triage room after a single insect snuck in with an admitted patient earlier this week.
So what’s the big deal?
Bedbugs are tiny, wingless insects that feast on human blood. They hide in cracks and crevices and crawl out when a victim is asleep to gorge on exposed flesh. Although not everyone experiences a visible reaction to bites, many people find itchy welts on their skin. Humans are their preferred source of sustenance, but the parasites can also subsist on pets, bats, birds and rodents.
The insects are not always technically classified as a health threat because there is no evidence that they transmit disease. But their growing resistance to extermination methods and ability to multiply rapidly and survive without feeding for up to a year mean this small critter can disrupt lives. The main problem may be more psychological than physical.
“Rats, roaches, files, ants – you don’t see people physically distressed, where they come in and cry,” said Linares. “We see a lot of emotional reaction to bed bug infestations that we do not see with other pests.”
How do bedbugs spread?
Use of DDT in the years following World War II nearly eliminated the scourge in the United States. Now burgeoning populations permeate cities across the country. An online bedbug registry provides a public (and anonymous) forum for posting infestations. Linares attributes the resurgence to the explosion of global travel, immigration patterns and increasingly stringent EPA regulations that control the use of heavy-duty chemical pesticides. The bugs can travel on clothing and in luggage, and can even attach themselves to human hosts on public transportation.
On the home front, introducing secondhand items of any type into your living space is a leading risk factor. Used furniture is a particular threat. Once the pests are present in one unit of an apartment building or other multi-unit dwelling, the bedbugs are likely to spread to the neighbors.
How do you detect them?
Aside from exoskeletons, small blood stains and black spots on your sheets, bedbugs can be difficult to detect due to their small size and ability to hide. Visual evidence is often hard to find, although a musty smell can indicate an infestation. Bite marks are often the first indication of the bugs’ presence. Bedbug-sniffing dogs are a current force in efforts to identify the unwelcome residents, and a session with a canine expert can cost several hundred dollars. Certification programs have been developed in an attempt to regulate the requisite skill set, and experts cite a 96 percent success rate in detection with dogs that have been properly trained.
How do you get rid of them?
“There are no magic bullets since products that frankly would have been effective are no longer an option,” said Linares. “You cannot rely on one technique – you have to go in with a multi-pronged attack.”
The first line of defense involves filling in all cracks and gaps and disposing of infested bedding, furniture, books and other objects. Additional effective techniques include maintaining a heated environment at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, steaming clothing and furniture, and treating the entire area with a variety of liquid, aerosol and powdered insecticides and disinfectants. Wrapping a mattress in airtight encasements ensures that no bedbugs can get in or out, and interceptors have been designed to trap the pest within furniture legs. Bedbug beacons are carbon dioxide monitors that act as lures to trap the offending insects. Sometimes multiple treatments are required to completely eliminate the invaders.
The discovery of bedbugs can lead to an expensive and emotionally taxing ordeal, and communities are starting to take a more active role in combating the pests. New York Governor David A. Paterson is expected to sign a bill forcing New York landlords to notify prospective tenants of any bedbug infestations within the past year. Ohio is particularly hard hit and last November, officials submitted a request for an emergency exemption from the EPA to authorize the industrial-grade pesticide Propoxur for use in private homes. Although the pesticide is approved for use in commercial buildings and even pet collars, in June, the EPA opted not to approve the chemical for home use because of concerns over health risks impacting children’s nervous systems.