Humans Losing War Against Bed Bugs
APP.com (The Asbury Park Press)
Sunday, December 4, 2011
The war on bedbugs was winnable, experts say.
When the flesh-eating insects began their U.S. resurgence in the
late 1990s and early 2000s, we humans had our chance. Brought into
airports and hotels by international travelers, a focused attack
could have eradicated the pest not seen in such great numbers since
the mid-20th century.
But no one talked about bedbugs then. And by the time the
widening epidemic was noticed by the general population in the late
2000s, it was too late.
Now, according to Richard Cooper, one of New Jersey's foremost
experts on bedbugs, humans are in for a long, entrenched war whose
progress will be measured in years.
"I think we had that opportunity and missed it," Cooper
New Jersey is in the heart of the Northeast's bedbug outbreak.
Located between two major urban infestations - New York City is No.
1, according to a 2011 Terminix ranking of the most infested U.S.
cities; Philadelphia is No. 5 - reports of bedbug problems are
increasing in the Garden State as the pest makes its way from city
centers into the suburbs and their public spaces.
In the past two months, the tiny, reddish insects were found in
schools in Lakewood and Woodbridge. Bedbugs have been reported in
public buildings, theaters, jails, hospitals and school buildings
throughout New Jersey.
"Bedbugs are very small, and they can hide very well," said
Changlu Wang, a Rutgers University entomologist who studies bedbugs
and other urban pests. "You may think you've killed them all, but
you miss a few. Those few can survive and restart the problem."
The last time the U.S. experienced a bedbug problem of this
magnitude was the 1940s and 1950s, experts say. That infestation
was handled effectively with pesticides, primarily DDT. But half a
century later, in the late 1990s, bedbug reports began to resurface
- this time linked to international travelers who picked up the
insects in South America, Africa and Asia, and brought them back to
American shores in luggage and clothing.
So hotels - the ground zero for early bedbug issues - handled
their problems quietly. It wasn't until the problem grew so quickly
that it made news reports in the mid-2000s that awareness and
attention to the problem began to increase. By then, it was too
late, Cooper said.
At that point, heightened awareness could have helped stop
bedbugs from gaining a new foothold in the U.S. But bedbugs carry
with them a stigma - they're dirty. People and places with bedbugs
are labeled unclean, messy and unsanitary.
"We lived in denial and maintained the stigma that it (bedbugs)
only happens to other people," said Cooper, an entomologist and
technical director of Cooper Pest Solutions in Lawrenceville.
"That's the kind of ignorance that allowed bedbugs to spread. Had
the nation realized what it was dealing with, we probably could
have nipped it."
It's no small irony that a problem commonly - and wrongly -
associated with poverty and unsanitary conditions actually was
brought to the U.S. by the middle and upper classes, those with the
means to travel to other continents, according to Cooper. And it
was the swankier New York hotels where the bedbugs were first
spotted a decade ago.
Today, however, it is poorer communities where bedbugs have
found their foothold. But it's not a matter of cleanliness, Cooper
said. It's a matter of money.
Because the modern bedbug is resistant to most common
pesticides, ridding a home of bedbugs is a months-long,
It's time-consuming and expensive, ranging anywhere from a few
hundred dollars to more than $1,000, depending on the extent of the
infestation, the exterminator and the specific eradication
If bedbugs invade a typical New Jersey McMansion, a single
family with a middle- to upper-class income can afford the cost of
treating the home and commit itself to ridding the home of the
habitats - clothing, bedding, mattresses, furniture and cluttered
storage areas - where the pests thrive.
"For a single homeowner, you really can eliminate bedbugs in a
reasonable amount of time, maybe one or two months," Wang said.
"But when it comes to an apartment building, that's where it
becomes more difficult. It requires building-wide action."
Poorer families might not be able to afford an extensive
treatment program, however. That means an in-home bedbug problem
might be temporarily stifled, but not fully eliminated, because
families can't afford additional treatments. Renters might choose
to move rather than pay for treatments - leaving the bedbugs for
the landlord and new tenants to deal with, and perhaps carrying
some of the critters with them to a new home.
Earlier this year, Cooper, who is studying for his doctorate in
entomology at Rutgers University and is a founder of BedBug
Central, considered one of the most thorough online resources for
information about the painful pest, was awarded a $100,000
education and outreach grant by the U.S. Environmental Protection
He's using the money to develop a plan that will educate
low-income and multi-family housing dwellers about bedbug
resistance, as well as develop a pest management program aimed at
apartment buildings and other places where bedbugs can take
It's the rapid spread of bedbugs and their entrenchment in large
communities of people that make the modern battle so difficult,
Cooper said. That, and the fact that today's bedbugs are so
resistant to chemical weapons: pesticides.
"It's not that there are no chemicals that work," Cooper said.
"There's just no simple cure like there was back in the '40s and
'50s, when you could spray a place with DDT."
That's not to say humans aren't making some progress, he
First, in 2006, there were no academic institutions studying
bedbugs. Today, there are 12 to 14 universities with bedbug
research programs - "urban entomology" studies that look at all
aspects of bedbugs, from molecular to behavioral to chemical, to
applied sciences such as pesticides.
"That's how we'll eventually turn the tide, by better
understanding the insect," Cooper said. "But I don't foresee some
sort of inexpensive silver bullet."
However, exterminators now have accumulated more than a decade's
worth of data and experience on the best way to handle bedbugs.
Today, extermination programs use a combination of pesticides as
well as natural methods that kill bedbugs with extreme heat or
extreme cold, as well as eliminating their habitats.
Considering that more than a generation of exterminators never
saw a bedbug, they have achieved significant field experience in a
relatively short period of time.
"We have more scientific understanding, more skills on the
ground," Cooper said. "But it's slow, and it's expensive."
For Action Termite and Pest Control, located in Toms River and
Red Bank, bedbugs have doubled the size of the business in less
than 10 years, according to Michael Russell, vice president of
sales and marketing.
When bedbugs finally reached the Jersey Shore in the mid-2000s,
Russell said, Action was the first company to begin using
bedbug-sniffing dogs to find infestations. Today, the company has
six dogs and has grown from 24 employees to 48. Its market has
expanded from Ocean County to include New York and
"We probably didn't get a (bedbug) call for 30 years," Russell
said. "Today, it's 50 percent of the business."
Action first uses dogs to sniff out bedbugs wherever they hide.
Russell says the dogs are 98 percent effective, compared with 35
percent for a visual human inspection. They then treat the infested
areas with a one-two punch of steam heat and chemicals.
Why is so much attention paid to the tiny bedbug? Why have these
insects, barely visible to the naked eye, demanded so much human
energy during the past decade? Why more than mice, mosquitoes or
It's because they live where we live and, more importantly, feed
on our flesh.
"Tolerance for bedbugs versus roaches, for example, is zero,"
Wang said, "because of the pain and discomfort they cause." Bedbugs
can leave their victims covered with hundreds of tiny, painful
bites - often inflicted while the victim sleeps.
It's a pain that, Cooper insists, could have been avoided with
more immediate attention a decade ago.
"In 2011, everyone is aware that bedbugs are real, but the
average person doesn't believe it's something that will affect
them," Cooper said. "While we hear and read it's not about hygiene
or housekeeping and it can happen to anyone, it doesn't register,"
he said. "Now they're going to be a part of the culture."