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
"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
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
"They are bit up bad," she said. "My daughter and her friend threw
The family is sleeping on the floor until the problem is
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
the Centers for Disease Control and
issued a joint statement on the matter. This is
because the bugs have a psychological effect on people, Lame
"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
"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
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
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.
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
with the help of the insecticide DDT. So, why the
"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
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
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."
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
Then, they give the homeowner a checklist of things to do to
prepare for the treatment - remove bedding, pick up clutter,
"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
"(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
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
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
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
"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."