Agencies prepare for bedbugs

The Register-Guard (OR)
Sunday, June 26, 2011

As bedbugs arrived in increasing numbers in Lane County, the persistent little pests have spurred a wave of entrepreneurial activity.

Local pest control companies are adding staff, bug-killing equipment and bedbug-sniffing dogs. Retailers are stocking bedbug products, including sprays and mattress casings.

Motel, retail and second-hand shops are training their staff to spot signs of the bugs, writing bedbug control plans to insure proper and speedy action upon discovery - and they're contracting with pest companies to insure attention when the bugs turn up.

"It's a big business," said Dave Ottovich, owner of "Ask the Bug Man" Pest Management Services in Eugene.

Nationally, bedbug-associated revenues at treatment companies are up 24 percent, at $319 million in 2010 from $258 million in 2009, according to the National Pest Management Association.

A half dozen new companies with "bedbug" in their names were launched in Oregon since August, including Progressive Bedbug Solutions and Bedbug Guys. And Lane County's pest control industry grew last year, with two new firms joining the existing dozen.

Bonanza

Neither scientists, public health experts or pest control experts know sure-fire ways of treating bedbugs. The bugs develop quick immunity to insecticides. No technique, including whole-room heat fumigation, is perfect.

The National Pest Management Association counsels exterminators to manage their customers' expectations: "Because of the cryptic nature of bedbugs, it is difficult to be 100 percent sure that all bedbugs and eggs have been eliminated."

Bedbugs have proved an ongoing bonanza for the pest control industry. It takes three or four treatments to wipe out an entrenched population. Commercial establishments are willing to pay pronto to avoid business-damaging publicity if word of an infestation leaked. And homeowners just want the bugs out of their lives.

"Some companies are charging an arm and a leg," Ottovich said. "To me they're playing on people's fears."

Treatments run from hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars, depending on the seriousness of the infestation and whether the client is a single family homeowner or a hotel or dormitory operator, the pest management companies said.

Sprague Pest Solutions, a regional pest management company based in Tacoma, bought $500,000 worth of room-heating devices with temperature probes so that the company would be prepared for the arrival of bedbugs, Eugene branch Manager Mike Mulloy said. Sprague invested in three dogs with handlers at a cost of $10,000 each. And the company hired one additional employee in Eugene, three in Portland and 10 in Seattle just to deal with the demand for bedbug services.

"We get calls (saying) we need the dog here today," Mulloy said. "They say: 'Help us. Help us. Bail us out. We hear you've got heat.' "

When Sprague's first dog, April, got too busy, the company added May and June, who all started out as mutts in an animal shelter, Mulloy said. Now the company is evaluating whether to add a new dog, Julius, to meet the demand. The Eugene branch averages a call a day about possible bedbugs and about 80 percent of them are confirmed upon inspection, Mulloy said.

The Good Earth Pest Company based in Corvallis - and covering Lane County as far south as Cottage Grove - has treated increasing numbers of bedbug infestations since 2006. The company averages two confirmed infestations a month, owner René Kesecker said.

The company uses heavy duty vacuum extraction and steam applied directly to the mattress and other furniture. "You've got to address every nook and cranny," she said.

And the company selectively applies insecticide where concentrations of bugs were found to "take care of any stragglers," Kesecker said.

Ottovich said he first puts out traps to determine if there is, in fact, an infestation before he breaks out the insecticide. About 75 percent of home owners who call him with concerns about bedbugs don't turn out to have them, he said, many times they call after seeing a news program about the bugs.

Manufacturing

As demand for anti-bug measures increases, gadget makers are busy supplying a range of devices - many of them not cheap - to deal with the apple-seed-sized bugs.

The cost of heat-killing decontamination chambers, for example, runs from $20,000 to $500,0000, St. Vincent de Paul executive director Terry McDonald said.

McDonald is experienced in bedbug issues: He is an adviser to the Connecticut Coalition Against Bedbugs. He got involved while launching a mattress recycling effort in the Eastern seaboard state. One system runs propane-generated heat through baffles in a refrigerator truck to treat objects, such as furniture that's locked inside, McDonald said, adding, "It doesn't have to be very hot at all. Bedbugs die at 123 degrees."

A Portland nonprofit group began producing $500 bedbug-resistant beds in partnership with Pesznecker Brothers metal fabricators.

Bedbugs can't crawl on slippery finishes. So the Central City Concern bed has slippery legs that are bent outward, preventing the mattress from touching the wall, so there's no pathway for the bugs.

A West Linn company called Cimex Science invented a $1,000 bedbug trap that attracts the bugs with carbon dioxide, heat and body odor concocted to mimic a tasty human.

Northwest dry cleaners will convene in Portland on July 24 for a one-day course on bedbugs. They're a risk for the industry, but they're also an opportunity, according to the National Cleaners Association. Some cleaners may want to develop bedbug services as a revenue stream, if they can do it without scaring their existing customers, according to the New York-based group.

Retail

Specialty shops and hardware stores are laying in products for customers with bedbug fears or infestations. The True Value Hardware in south Eugene upped its number of bedbug spray varieties to three recently in response to customer demand, clerk Trevor Evans said.

Bed Bath & Beyond at Oakway runs a looped video about bedbugs in its linens department. "Colleges are seeing explosions of bedbugs," it warns; then it peddles Allergy Luxe mattress encasements made of a "micro-denier" polyester/nylon blend.

Bug-tight encasements are an important tool because they deny bugs their most convenient hiding place. Bed Bath & Beyond carries encasements made by three companies, ranging in price from $89.99 to $99.99 for queen size beds. Two encasements are needed for each bed - one each for mattress and box springs.

St. Vincent de Paul, which has $9 million in annual sales at Lane County thrift stores, started training all of its staff to spot signs of bedbug infestation, including blood smears, black feces spots and shed exoskeletons.

So far the bugs have turned up twice: Once in a mattress from Reeds port and a second time on a hide-a-bed that a customer donated at one of the Lane County drive-through donation sites, McDonald said. The staff spotted the bugs, sealed the items in bags and sent them to the dump. "When we start seeing a significant influx - from 1 to 3 percent of product coming in with bedbugs - then we'll move rapidly toward a (heat) fumigating system. Before that point, it's more cost effective to discard the product."