Reporting from Cincinnati—In this Ohio city, it seems, it really is tough to stop the bedbugs from biting.
When complaints about the bloodsucking insects first trickled in to Cincinnati’s public health department three years ago, officials assumed it was an anomaly—or perhaps the overactive imagination of a bug-phobic public. After all, Cimex lectularius had all but vanished here by the 1950s because of the frequent use of DDT and other now-banned pesticides.
But that trickle of complaints has grown into a flood: A recent public survey found that 1 in every 6 people here has had a run-in with the biting bugs in the last 12 months.
Dozens of fire stations in Cincinnati have had to dump furniture or have their living quarters exterminated because firefighters unknowingly brought the eggs in on their boots or pant legs. Assisted-living complexes have spent tens of thousands of dollars on pest-control companies because, the thinking goes, visitors may have carried in the bugs on their purses or bags.
City health department officials said they now receive more frantic calls about the insects than about mice, rats and cockroaches combined.
Cincinnati is not alone in its itchy woes. Reports of a welt-covered public are coming in from college campuses, high-end hotels and even movie theaters across the country.
In New York, there were 8,830 complaints about bedbugs in fiscal 2008, which ended June 30, up from 1,839 in 2005, according to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
Task forces aimed at eradicating the bugs and educating the public have been established in numerous states—including Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Ohio.
In California, the bugs have become such a problem that the state’s Department of Public Health started surveying local public health agencies in 2007 to get a handle on the scope of the infestation. Among the reasons cited for the return of the bugs: the DDT ban and an increase in international travel.
But figuring out the extent of the problem nationwide is difficult, entomologists say.
Part of the problem is that cash-strapped cities don’t see the insect as a public-health priority. Unlike cockroaches, fleas and mosquitoes, bedbugs aren’t known as disease carriers.
“Anyone can be at risk,” said Greg Kesterman, director of environmental health for the Hamilton County public health agency, which includes Cincinnati.
Kesterman noted that the county received two complaints about bedbugs in 2003 and nearly 300 in 2008.