New study: What U.S. city is No. 1 for bed bug infestations?

USA Today
Tuesday, May 24, 2011

New York, for the second year in a row, according to a study just released by pest-control giant Terminix. Not really a surprise, since NYC is a populous metropolis with well-publicized infestations everywhere from apartment buildings to businesses such as department stores, magazine offices, even Lincoln Center.

Terminix reports an increase in bed bug infestations in most states during the past year, in part because consumers are more aware and on the lookout for the tiny pests, Terminix entymologist Paul Curtis told me.

The company's list of most bed bug-plagued cities, based on customer complaints validated by Terminix and infestations discovered during pest calls:

1. New York 
2. Cincinnati
3. Detroit
4. Chicago
5. Philadelphia
6. Denver
7. Washington, D.C.
8. Los Angeles
9. Boston
10. San Francisco
11. Columbus, Ohio
12. Dayton, Ohio
13. Baltimore
14. Louisville, Ky.
15. Dallas

This is the second year Terminix has put out a list. Baltimore, Dallas and San Francisco appear on it for the first time this year, replacing Indianapolis, Cleveland and Minneapolis.

Bed bugs have always been around, especially since strong chemicals such as DDT were banned, says bug expert Curtis. But today, "People are more aware and communicating" about the issue," though "there's still a stigma attached to having bed bugs," he says. Businesses such as hotels are loath to let customers know about infestations, because that would deter potential clientele. So it can be very difficult to gather accurate information on the extent of bed bug infestation.

I asked Curtis whether it's true that you can get bitten in seats on planes, trains and buses or in theaters. "There's no question," he said. "This is an insect looking for a dark place with a human host, looking to get a blood meal" And bed bugs are "consummate hitchhikers," moving around easily on people and in bags, he says. Plus, they inject an anesthetic when they bite, so you may not feel it. Some people don't get bite marks, he says. In other cases, a bite may not show up for a few days, making it hard to tell where you got it.

What to do? Be really careful bringing traveling bags and clothes into your home, he says. "When I get home I put my clothes in a plastic bag. They go into the washer and then the dryer on high (heat kills bed bugs). I vacuum my luggage."

In hotels, Curtis always strips covers off the mattress and inspects it and the area behind the headboard and under box springs for dark spots (bed bug fecal matter), blood (from a feeding), the bugs themselves (which can range from head-of-a-pin size to appleseed-like), or for rows of tiny eggs.

He does not use hotel drawers and keeps his luggage on a rack as far away from the bed as he can. Bed bugs like to "harbor close to their food sources," he says. So watch out for beds and upholstered seating. If you want to get extreme, you can place suitcases in big plastic bags that zip closed and you can leave luggage in the bathroom, which is less likely to harbor bed bugs. "But there is no silver bullet" for eradicating them, he says. Heat, cold and multiple treatments are often tried, especially since bugs can lie dormant for a long time.

Terminix has a bed bug learning center online, with answers to many questions about the critters. Other pest control companies, such as Orkin, have posted tips for bed bug detection and treatment.

The good news is that bed bug bites generally don't cause harm and that "30%-40% of people never have a reaction to them," Curtis says. Many never realize they were bitten.

Prevention is the key to avoiding extensive and expensive treatments of homes and businesses (which can mean throwing out mattresses and replacing carpets). You also can look at bedbugregistry.com, which contains about 20,000 user-submitted reports, to see if any infestations have been reported at hotels where you're planning to stay. I checked out a couple of fleabags where I have stayed (and one where I refused to check in because the room looked sketchy), and both had client reports of bed bug bites. In those cases, I was surprised to see how unsympathetc and unhelpful users say management was in responding to the issue.

Readers, any other tips for avoiding bed bugs? Have any of you dealt with an infestation on the road or at home and, if so, how?