N.J. exterminators stay busy as bedbug cases rise across the state

The Star Ledger (NJ)
Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gregorio Lozano and his team pulled up to the target address and got ready for battle, donning white bio-hazard suits and off-loading silver tanks of cryogen.

They were on the hunt for bedbugs.

With the bedbug population larger than at any point in recent memory, exterminators are busier than ever, with infestations of the wingless red insect - no bigger than a pin head - increasingly being found far beyond homes and bedrooms. They're now being found in stores, offices and the workplace.

"There really is a mass paranoia about the insects now," said Steve Spinelli, owner of Titanium Laboratories in Nutley, which devotes 80 percent of its business to bedbugs, up from 15 percent in recent years.

Experts say labor lawyers have begun advising businesses on their liability and whether they should pay to treat not only their offices, but the homes of employees as well.

David Cassidy, a labor lawyer at Norris McLaughlin & Marcus in Bridgewater, expects to see the issue come up soon in new union contracts.

In rare cases, Cassidy said, bedbugs might warrant employee disability claims if someone is bitten at work. Even if no one is bitten, morale tends to drop after an infestation, he said. Some employees get labeled as "dirty" if their peers suspect they're responsible for the bedbugs, Cassidy said.

"We've coined this harassment as giving someone the 'Scarlet B,'" he said.

Despite increased concerns, experts say most people know little about bedbugs or infestation signs. Others try to remain ignorant, preventing the chances of catching the infestations at a small size.

"There are still people out there in New Jersey that are incredulous that it can happen in New Jersey, to them, said Peter Di Eduardo, an account manager at Bell Environmental exterminators. "They think it can only happen in New York."

Americans once thought bedbugs were relegated to good-night wishes. Effective pesticides wiped out most U.S. bedbugs in the 1950s. But increased international travel to places like South America, Asia and Africa allowed bedbugs resistant to traditional pesticides to travel back to America, said Changlu Wang, a professor at Rutgers University's Department of Entomology.

Outbreaks began to pop up in major cities, especially in New York, attracting media attention and scaring people about what lives in their mattresses.

At the same time, some exterminators were found to be equally ill-informed about how to deal with bedbugs. In January, the state Department of Environmental Protection fined a Newark company, TVF Pest Control, $860,000 and revoked its pesticide business license after spraying at least 50 residences and apartments for bedbugs in three counties with two banned chemicals during a six-month period, according to the DEP.

"If you're spraying pesticides incorrectly, and besides the fact that you can make people sick, you wind up irritating the bugs, so you're ending up spreading them to your neighbors' apartment," Di Eduardo said.

The state Legislature, meanwhile, has gotten into the act. The Assembly in 2008 set basic guidelines for landlords and tenants facing an infestation. Since then, the Legislature has passed seven more laws, including the establishment of 30-day warranties from exterminators and requirements for health care facilities and shelters to keep a standing agreement with a pest-control company.

Most recently, the Senate has proposed a $500 tax credit to offset the high costs of extermination.

Lozano, who first learned to battle bedbugs when his own house was infested, works in Bell Environmental's bedbug division, created about two years ago to deal with increasing infestation. In the past year alone, bedbug calls have risen about 50 percent.

"How many calls have we been to? I don't know - thousands by now," Lozano said. "This is my second call today."

At a home in Paterson, Lozano and his extermination team - garbed in white suits and latex gloves - moved through the downstairs, checking sofas, beds and drapes. This was actually the second treatment, and the team found some lingering bedbugs.

As they searched, Lozano stopped and pointed to the shoulder of Di Eduardo, who had accompanied the team.

"Look at that sucker!" Lozano said. A large bedbug had crawled up Di Eduardo's suit, nearly to the neckline. Di Eduardo looked down, picked it up between thumb and forefinger and squeezed it, leaving a trail of blood on his latex gloves.

"You know, I'm most worried about taking them home to my wife," he said. "She'd shoot me."