Bed Bugs Give Falmouth Housing Officials the Willies

CapeCodOnline.com
Sunday, November 6, 2011

FALMOUTH - They hide during the day, only to emerge when you fall asleep, so they can suck your blood under the cover of darkness.

"There's sort of a boogeyman effect to them, because they come and feed on you while you're sleeping," said Thomas Lacey, executive director of the Falmouth Housing Authority, about bedbugs, which were found at the Harborview Apartments on Scranton Avenue about three weeks ago.

The housing authority immediately took corrective measures after residents and building staff discovered the parasites in the laundry room and at least two units in the building that's home to elderly and disabled residents, Lacey said.

Last week, one of the two units was successfully treated, and dogs trained to track bedbugs found none outside the other affected unit, which is also scheduled for treatment, he added.

As the resurgence of bedbugs continues to leave a trail of itchy bites

across the country, the scourge is beginning to affect public housing on Cape Cod.

While few infestations have been reported, officials across the region are preparing for what some see as inevitable: the need to rid their buildings of the bugs.

"It's like a bad horror flick," said Richard Pollack, a public health entomologist at Harvard University's School of Public Health.

Some of the former remedies for bedbugs were nightmarish. The early 1950s, for instance, brought forth an era where strong insecticides, such as DDT, were widely sold at low prices and used in households on a regular basis, Pollack said.

"We know now that ... wasn't such a good idea," Pollack said, referring to the practice's tendency to leave lingering, dangerous chemicals for people to inhale.

In the past three years or so, the prevalence of these pests has grown from barely noticeable to full-blown, especially in multi-family homes and hotel rooms.

"It's just everywhere; the Cape is no exception," said Barbara Thurston, Bourne Housing Authority executive director.

Thurston experienced the problem firsthand in early spring when four units at the Continental Apartments, public housing for elderly residents in Buzzards Bay, became infested. The housing authority shelled out $250 per hour for a dog to find the bugs and then $1,000 per unit to eradicate them, Thurston said.

The pricey extermination method used at the Continental Apartments is a non-toxic one that heats affected rooms to about 140 degrees, said Sandy Rubenstein, who owns Pure Heat, a company that provides this service. The heat kills all bedbugs and eggs without using chemicals, Rubenstein said. Chemical treatments also remain a popular method for eradicating the bugs.

Bedbugs typically use humans as vehicles to travel, and they reproduce wherever they land, said Pollack. They can crawl into clothing or suitcases left unattended in an infested room and find a new home in a mattress, couch or other places where they might find something on which to feed. Their methods of spreading makes places like hotels and apartment buildings especially vulnerable to the species' proliferation.

"We are preparing in case it does happen," said Sandee Perry, executive director of the Barnstable Housing Authority.

"(Bedbugs) are around when you have a lot of people," Perry said. "Unfortunately, it's inevitable."

Staying in front of the problem, Perry is in contact with other housing authority directors who have dealt with infestations and sends her employees to training sessions that teach them how to identify the pesky insects, find where the bugs came from, and educate residents on how to keep them from spreading.

While the small, flat, reddish-brown creatures are more prevalent than in past years, Pollack said hysteria over bedbugs has caused many people who seek out his pest-identifying business, IdentifyUs LLC, to show him samples of things like table lint, convinced they are bedbugs.

"It's something (on which) we just need to educate ourselves to deal with in a rational way," Pollack said. "In many cases, they've already spent $5,000 or more to treat their home" before discovering it isn't infested.

Pollack also stressed that, contrary to some social stigmas that only dirty or dilapidated homes become infested, bedbugs don't discriminate between victims.

"Bedbugs don't care how thick your wallet is ... how clean your house is, or how much you shower," he said.