Bugged by an Old Problem - Residents Say Apartments Riddled with Bed Bugs

WSBT-TV (South Bend, IN)
Saturday, October 29, 2011

Trash bins overflowed with mattresses and furniture last month at a South Bend apartment complex. But anyone tempted to repurpose the loot would have been in for a nasty surprise.

The bedding and furnishings were infested with bedbugs.

The bugs had moved into several of the complex's buildings and were "spreading like wildfire" from apartment to apartment, according to one resident, who didn't want to be named for fear of eviction.

"I noticed the bites first and I was thinking, 'I'm breaking out or I have the measles,' " she said. "But then I saw a little bug."

She called the complex office and they sent Terminix to look at her place. They confirmed that she had the bugs.

So did her daughter and grandchildren, who live in a nearby apartment.

"They are bit up bad," she said. "My daughter and her friend threw away everything."

The family is sleeping on the floor until the problem is resolved.

Meanwhile, the woman is concerned that the bugs might spread through the complex's schoolchildren.

"My grandson goes to school and other kids out here go to school," she said. "They say (the bugs) can travel on people's clothing or purses."

She's right. Bedbugs don't stay put.

"They are the best hitchhikers there are," said Tim Harvey, manager of Terminix's South Bend branch.

"They ride from place to place on clothing, luggage. They can even get on your pants and travel from room to room or be transported anywhere.

"It has nothing to do with sanitation or cleanliness. They are just good hitchhikers," he said.

They tend to infest places with a lot of traffic: college dorms, hotels and motels, nursing homes, office buildings, schools and day cares, hospitals, public transportation and movie theaters.

Last year, Hawthorne Elementary School in Elkhart dealt with an infestation. In August, the Niles Housing Commission's Hi Rise apartments had to call in a company with a bedbug-sniffing dog to deal with an infestation. There have been several reports of bedbugs at hotels in Michiana. And, of course, there are homes.

"I've actually gotten double the calls this year than we did previous years," said Harvey. "We probably do an average of two to three jobs per week."

Science and health

Bedbugs are small, flat, oval insects that feed solely on blood, preferably that of humans. They are usually active at night and prefer to hide close to where people sleep - especially in the crevices of the mattress, box spring, bed frame and headboard. They cannot fly, but will crawl as far as 20 feet to obtain a blood meal, said Marc Lame, an entomologist at Indiana University Bloomington.

Bedbugs feed by piercing exposed skin like a mosquito. They are not able to burrow into skin or through material. It takes them about five to 10 minutes to feed, but people seldom know they are being bitten.

"Basically their whole survival depends on getting on, getting a blood meal and getting off without being squished," Lame said. "They inject an anticoagulant to make the blood flow faster and an anesthetic so they can remain undetected."

Some people develop an itchy red welt similar to a mosquito bite within a day to two weeks of being bitten, while others have little or no reaction.

Female bedbugs might lay 200 to 500 eggs during their lifetime. When they first hatch, the bugs are about the size of a pinhead. As they grow, they molt or shed their skin five times. Before each stage of the life cycle, the bugs must have a blood meal. However, they can go for months, as many as 10 to 12, without eating, Lame said. If conditions are right, they can mature within a month - which means they can produce several generations in one year.

While a lot of research is still being done on the subject, studies so far have shown that bedbugs do not transmit disease.

However, the government is beginning to recognize the bugs as a serious health concern. Just last year, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a joint statement on the matter. This is because the bugs have a psychological effect on people, Lame said.

"If you think you're sleeping with bedbugs, you are not going to sleep very well," he said. "Which causes you to function very poorly - from crazy to just darn tired."

That, in turn, can impair reflexes and contribute to other health problems.

"After they get rid of (the bugs), it can take three weeks or three months for (a person) to psychologically get over the infestation," Lame said. "I've even had some sleepless nights after bedbug calls that were heavily infested - where they were really numerous and gross."

Some people become obsessed and would do anything to rid their homes or themselves of the bugs, including "dousing themselves with pesticides or bedbug bombs," Lame said, or scraping their skin with sharp objects.

A North Carolina woman died after she and her husband used several chemicals in their home in an attempt to rid it of bedbugs.

"We could all have bedbugs and survive," Lame said, but when it reaches an epidemic and causes anxiety in people, public health officials play an important role.

National epidemic

The National Pest Management Association estimates that the number of bedbug complaints has soared 500 percent in the last five years and one of its recent surveys found that one in five Americans reported either having had an infestation or knowing someone who had a bedbug experience.

A common household pest for centuries, the nighttime nibblers nearly vanished after World War II with the help of the insecticide DDT. So, why the resurgence?

"Basically because of the drastic increase in international travel combined with no longer using the persistent pesticides of the 1950s," Lame said.

"You take those two factors and combine them with a culture that is almost totally ignorant of a human nest parasite and they've kind of got one over on us."

We thought we fixed things with a "magic silver bullet," he said, and now we have two or three generations who have never been exposed to bedbugs.

He explains that the parents of baby boomers grew up with bedbugs, but "they weren't ignorant of how to handle them."

"It's estimated that about 30 percent of households had bedbugs prior to World War II, while the other two-thirds of the households didn't," Lame said, "because they did the right things.
"Remember your grandparents? They might have had glass castors on their furniture - the legs of their beds," he said, explaining that bedbugs couldn't crawl over them.

"They knew how to deal with bedbugs. How to prevent them from spreading. That was part of life before 1950."

It's this lack of awareness, Lame said, that is the biggest problem today, along with a "sense of deniability from local businesses and government that are concerned with tourism."

"I'm known for saying it's an epidemic," he said. "It's not a harmful epidemic, but it falls under the definition of an epidemic and I've had mayors and city managers and institutional officials get extremely angry when I say that as an expert because it hurts business and tourism."

Terminix published a list of the top 15 "worst hit" cities in the country. This year, five of the cities are located in the Midwest, including No. 4, Chicago. Although Indianapolis did not appear on the 2011 list, it held the 12th position in 2010.

"We have a population density that approaches the East, but we have a lack of awareness," Lame said. "They went through this same lack of awareness probably eight years ago."

The transportation corridors of Interstate 75, I-65 and I-80 allow the bugs to travel easily by hitching rides on travelers' clothes or luggage, he said. And, parents, beware - the bugs can also travel via college student.

"Many universities now have ongoing bedbug infestations, usually at low levels. More often with their university-owned houses and apartments, rather than the dormitories," Lame said. "I talk to my students who travel overseas and an overwhelming majority of them say they get them overseas. And probably bring them back."

Pest control

Today, the best form of bug control is not a pesticide, but a practice called "integrated pest management," or IPM, which combines prevention and education with monitoring and control. It uses several methods and is sensitive to the environment.

Bedbugs sometimes develop a resistance to pesticides, Lame said, explaining that pesticides cannot be used alone, but only as part of the arsenal.

"It takes a lot of technique to apply pesticides and not everyone can do it," Lame said.

Seventy-three percent of pest management professionals who responded to a National Pest Management Association survey, said that bedbugs are the most difficult pest to treat.

So, how do the professionals handle bedbugs?

Harvey said that Terminix will make an initial inspection of a home. It inspects the headboard, mattress, box spring and areas around the bed.

"We look for dark spots and casings (the bugs) may have left behind," he said. "They are a pretty specific bug. It's not hard to identify them."

Then, they give the homeowner a checklist of things to do to prepare for the treatment - remove bedding, pick up clutter, etc.

"Bedbugs are pretty resilient and can handle temperatures from below freezing to well over a hundred degrees and can go several months without feeding," Harvey said. "The only time they move, or come out, is to feed, which is why they are so successful."

Two types of treatments have proven to be effective: steam treatment or a freeze machine. Terminix freezes the bugs using a liquid form of carbon dioxide.

"Frost covers the room," he said, explaining that while the extreme temperature change kills the bugs and their eggs, the frost melts immediately and leaves no residue behind, making it environmentally friendly.
"(The frost is) like turning a can of condensed air upside down and spraying it," he said. "It only takes about an hour or so. A one-bedroom apartment, of course, takes less time than a four-bedroom house."

The average cost for one room might be $300 or so, with additional rooms ranging from $125 to $175, Harvey said. But the cost can vary depending on the size of the room and the amount of furniture. It could cost $400 to $1,000, if it's a larger home.

For commercial residences or businesses, the cost can be steep.

In August, the Niles Housing Commission signed an $89,000 contract with a company in Kalamazoo to eliminate bedbugs at the Hi Rise apartments using a heat treatment.

Not-for-profits, which have people coming and going all the time, like the Center for the Homeless in South Bend, also face the steep costs. These agencies find preventive practices - like putting covers on all mattresses - very important.

"Best practice is that you install industrial dryers and upon arrival of residents place all their belongings in a dryer cycle for treatment and have them shower on arrival," said Steve Camilleri, executive director at the Center.

"If they do not wish to treat their belongings then they would not be permitted to stay.

"In addition to a person's belongings, donations should also be placed in a dry cycle as they arrive on site."

And finding the most effective treatment can be a challenge. Camilleri knows of an agency that paid $1,000 to have an area treated, only to have the bedbugs turn up in another area.

He added: "This is a problem that is costly and seemingly never-ending, but you have to do whatever you can to rid your facility of the problem."