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Bed Bug Infestation Is Scaring Millions Of Americans

Outbreaks of bed bugs, soaring in the most unexpected places -- like CNN's headquarters -- stoke some of our deepest fears.
 
 
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Peter Krask stepped out of his New York City apartment one day last year, shut the door, and walked away forever, leaving behind almost everything he owned.

He carried away only a few items of clothing, personal records, and his computer.

Krask's apartment was infested with bedbugs. Savoring warmth, they swarmed in his DSL port, light fixtures, carpets and furniture. They'd feasted on him nightly for a year — which he spent visiting doctors in an increasing state of panic over the rashes inflaming his buttocks and other body parts before finally ascertaining the cause.

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. 

Lending a whole new meaning to the phrase "home invasion," the very idea stokes our deepest fears of swarming hordes and sleeper cells and sneak attacks.

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.

"Did you ride home in a car, bus or train? You might have been feeding bedbugs while sitting in your seat."

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. A single pregnant stowaway on a sleeve, say, or in a thrift-shop cushion could turn you into the next Peter Krask.

He spun those few clothes salvaged from his abandoned apartment in a hot dryer, one of the few tactics known to kill bedbugs and their eggs. Before the self-employed writer and floral designer could use his computer again, "it was placed in a sealed bag with poison-gas pellets for a week."

Other bedbug victims he's known have hired companies that poison-gassed all their possessions in the backs of unmarked trucks.

"I burned through every resource I had to restock my new apartment. In every store where I went to buy new things, salespeople told me that other customers had come in with similar horror stories" about bedbugs.

Physically, psychologically, financially, "it was a total catastrophe."

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.

Certain insects carry age-old social stigmas. Mosquito bites convey no class distinctions, thus no shame. But flea bites imply that one cohabits not just with animals but unclean animals; thus one is rural, thus uncivilized and poor. Cockroaches suggest squalor. So did bedbugs, to our pre-WWII ancestors, who often associated filth with foreignness.

Wherever they came from, bedbugs are ours now.

"The point isn't who brought them in. The point is that they're here, they're spreading, and we need to develop effective ways to deal with them with the tools we now have," says Jeffrey White, research entomologist for the national clearinghouse BedBugCentral.com, whose Bed Bug TV webcasts he hosts, demonstrating the use of bugproof bed-wrappers and search techniques for telltale bedbug fecal streaks. The bed-wrappers have supertight sealing mechanisms, "because we've seen bugs weaving their way through closed zippers."

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.'"

The EPA doesn't fund the kind of research required to control bedbugs, Koehler says. Nor does the USDA, tasked with combating only agricultural pests. Because bedbugs don't spread diseases, they aren't under the jurisdiction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ditto the National Institutes of Health. 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.

This button-button-who's-got-the-button situation leaves ordinary people in the lurch. Bedbug-advice websites abound, sponsored by pest-control companies, universities, local government agencies and concerned citizens. "A foul, rotting, bloody-meat smell might be present in heavily infested areas," reads a University of California info-sheet. BedbugRegistry.com is an address-specific infestation database. BedBugCentral.com offers an online "Bed Bugs 101." New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called late last month for the appointment of a "bedbug czar." But with no official guidelines in place, "you see a lot of stupidity," Koehler laments. For instance, company trucks delivering clean new mattresses commonly also haul away customers' discarded bug-infested mattresses. And some people are using heavy agricultural pesticides in private homes.

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. Sprays and shampoos augment the task here, just as at similar salons popping up in increasing numbers nationwide to tackle the surge of infestations now plaguing schools, camps and daycare centers.

With its fuchsia-pink walls and giant toy car for toddlers to ride, Catcher's Nitz feels fun and chic, because Cummings-Umegboh — who issues all-clear certificates after treatments — wants to counteract the shame that lice traditionally invoke.

"It's very stressful, but there shouldn't be any shame. It's just like having the common cold; that's how prevalent it is. It's nothing to do with being nasty-dirty. A nice clean head is usually the head that lice will choose first, because a clean scalp gives them easier access to the blood. That's how they roll."

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.

Just as the mysterious appearance of what turned out to be AIDS radically changed the way America had sex, the resurgence of bloodsucking parasites will change the way we see and touch surfaces and each other.

"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 allretail stores must rethink returns.

"What if someone buys something, puts it in their infested house for four weeks, then returns it to the store?"

White sees no new wonder-weapon on the horizon set to quell this invasion.

"We need to develop more bedbug-controlling methods as soon as possible, especially more affordable methods — because yes, you can pick bedbugs up at a four-star hotel, but the sad truth is that we are starting to see these bugs 'reservoir' among people in the lower socioeconomic classes, because those are the people who can't afford to exterminate them."

DDT was deadly and cheap.
 

Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, most recently The Scavenger's Manifesto (Tarcher Press, 2009). Read more of Anneli's writings on scavenging at scavenging.wordpress.com.
 
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