Bed Bug Infestation Is Scaring Millions of Americans

Anneli Rufus, Alternet, August 16, 2010

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It was Cimex lectularius, the flat, cockroach-colored, lentil-sized pest whose favorite food is not just warm blood but human blood. Bedbugs are back, bigtime. According to a National Pest Management Association study, outbreaks have soared 81 percent nationwide since 2000. Their sudden resurgence in all fifty states of a formerly bedbug-free nation has caught off-guard not just the medical and pest-control industries but millions of ordinary people who now apply costly, time-consuming, potentially toxic and inconclusive strategies for slaughtering insects that inhabit indoor environments both soft and hard and can lie in wait without eating for up to a year. Finding hosts, they feed by night, doubling in size as they suck.

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Bedbug infestations at Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret and other trendy Manhattan stores last month–and last week in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center, home to CNN–cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each in lost sales, furniture, equipment and merchandise, plus the wages of dozens of workers transporting, fumigating and destroying tainted goods. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

America’s bedbug problem, says University of Florida entomology professor Philip Koehler, “has reached epidemic proportions.”

It’s getting worse, he says. And there’s no end in sight.

“Especially in the Northeast, bedbugs are becoming a common part of everyone’s lives”–in homes, stores, offices, hotels, hospitals, vehicles, schools, theaters, and restaurants.

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Koehler has seen bedbugs infesting deluxe retirement condos and VA-hospital waiting rooms, crawling out of purses and backpacks, and “pouring by the thousands” from wheelchairs whose paralyzed riders could not feel the bites. Almost any environment under 120 degrees Fahrenheit can support bedbugs. {snip}

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Virtually eradicated nationwide sixty years ago thanks to superpowered pesticides such as DDT, bedbugs are back–largely because those chemicals are now banned, but also thanks to what experts quoted in news reports call “increased foreign travel.” While much of this involves airplanes–and Koehler points out that “there are parts of the world such as India and Pakistan that have had bedbugs forever and where they never went away”–the bedbug resurgence is spurring not-so-surprising buzz about its origins.

“The hospital that takes in all the Mexican illegals who had been knifed or in a car wreck has bed bugs. Way to go . . . They are getting free medical and paying for it in bed bugs, not cash,” writes the blogger at StoptheInvasionofOregon.wordpress.com.

“Of course these little critters were brought in by illegal aliens. . . . Add that to the incurable TB and other diseases brought in by these illegal alien bastards,” reads a comment at MSNBC.com following coverage of the Victoria’s Secret outbreak.

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Other tools include liquid pesticides and eco-friendly ClimbUp Insect Interceptors: double-rimmed, talc-filled cups in which beds’ legs stand.

Optimally, “you have to find every bedbug and spray it individually,” says Koehler. Treating an apartment costs upwards of $600, but if one unit is infested, the whole building needs treatment. Each treatment requires several visits, each lasting six hours.

And it’s a matter of reinventing the wheel.

When bedbugs began reappearing ten years ago, “one of the problems we had was that if you wanted to talk to anyone with any expertise, you’d have to have a seance,” Koehler says. “Everyone who ever knew anything about bedbugs had died of old age.”

Granted, those bygone experts would have whipped out the DDT, whose powers lay largely in its long-term residual effects. Once dry, it remained toxic for years, which was both good and bad.

“We’re dealing with regulations now that we didn’t have before,” says Koehler, who with other members of the National Pest Management Association–and other petitioners such as Ohio’s Department of Agriculture–have asked the EPA, which controls pesticide registration and labeling, to approve the use of the legal pesticide Propoxur for bedbugs. Now widely used in flea collars, Propoxur has demonstrated a 100-percent bedbug-killing rate in lab tests, more than twice that of pesticides currently approved for bedbugs.

“We never asked the EPA to bring back DDT,” Koehler says. “We’re just asking for some products that can be used legally in the United States on other pests to be used on bedbugs as well.” But because “some of the anti-pesticide people lobbied very hard,” the EPA refused.

“Their pronouncement told the pest-control industry: ‘We know you don’t have anything to use that will work on bedbugs, but we don’t care.'”

{snip} When I called the US Department of Health and Human Services seeking an interview, I was told that agency representatives wouldn’t speak about bedbugs in general but only about specific outbreaks in specific public facilities, such as hospitals.

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Bedbugs aren’t the only vector making a comeback. At her Berkeley, California headlice-removal salon Catcher’s Nitz, registered nurse Sylvia Cummings-Umegboh seats clients in brightly illuminated barbershop chairs, sections their hair beautician-style, affixes a magnifying-glass headgear over her eyes, then painstakingly snares ant-sized lice and their gluey poppyseed-sized eggs, known as nits, with a long-toothed stainless-steel Nit-Free Terminator Comb, flicking them into Barbicide-treated trays from which they can’t escape. {snip}

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So now we must reacquaint ourselves with a reality that our ancestors knew well: Tiny crawly things might be anywhere, anytime, on anything and anyone; they can get on us, in us, and wreck our lives. How primitive. We thought we had transcended this. We thought science and civilization had liberated us from the brutish paranoia it invokes. The very words “outbreak” and “infestation” feel funny to say: archaic, like lines in a play set in the 16th century. Say them we must, as news breaks today of a brand-new antibiotic-resistant bacteria emerging in (wait for it) India and Pakistan.

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“Fifteen years ago, people didn’t think twice about bringing home free stuff they found on the curb,” says BedBug Central’s Jeffrey White. “That way of thinking needs to change.” As part of a long-overdue policy overhaul, he says medical facilities shouldn’t let patients bring blankets from home, thrift shops should heat-treat merchandise on principle, and all retail stores must rethink returns.

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