Putting The Bite On Bed Bugs
Thursday, February 2, 2012
"Goodnight. Sleep tight. Don't let the
bedbugs bite." The old bedtime saying has taken on new meaning for
thousands of Portlanders in recent years, ever since the local
bedbug population mushroomed.
Infestations at homeless shelters, hotels,
apartments, hospitals and college dorms have served as a wake-up
call, prompting a variety of countermeasures.
But bedbugs remain a stigma here, in contrast
to places like New York where they've long been ensconced. That
keeps people and businesses from reporting or acknowledging the
problem - making it difficult to track the growth of Portland's
bedbug population and determine if and where we're making
"Nobody can give you a really clear picture,
because we don't have that data," says Margaret Mahoney,
co-chairwoman of a bedbug work group formed by Multnomah County to
forge community-wide solutions.
Homeless shelters and other low-income housing
providers stepped up first in Portland, when bedbug sightings grew
more common during the past few years. Home Forward (formerly the
Housing Authority of Portland) built a "warming room" to kill
bedbugs in homeless peoples' luggage and possession before they
could move into the new Bud Clark Commons apartments in Old Town.
Central City Concern even developed its own bedbug-resistant bed
and made it available to others.
But experts say anti-bedbug efforts in other
sectors have lagged or been less effective, including those of the
hotel industry and purveyors of secondhand furniture. Portlanders
working on the front lines say it would be better if all affected
parties, including TriMet, movie theaters and the hotel industry,
participated in community-wide efforts.
"For a long time, the hotels said, 'We don't
have a problem,' "says Mark Schmidt, Portland branch manager for
Sprague Pest Solutions Inc.
"I don't understand why we're having such
roadblocks with some partners in the community," says Corey Ray,
housing director for Portland State University.
Even the Multnomah County Health Department
was initially reluctant to address the issue, says County
Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, because bedbugs were not deemed a
public health threat.
Kafoury helped organize a one-day Bedbug
Summit last March, bringing together a variety of affected players.
The county is taking the lead role, though it's not always getting
the information or cooperation it would like.
"We know the importance in tracking the
problem and knowing what the growth rate is," says Ben Duncan,
bedbugs program specialist for Multnomah County Health Department's
environmental health section.However, Duncan says, "There's very
little regulation or mandatory reporting."
Despite the lack of comprehensive data on the
scope of Portland's bedbug problem, there are some indications of a
• In 2011, bedbugs were detected in 180
low-income housing units operated by Home Forward, says Ken Combs,
core maintenance manager for the nonprofit agency. That's 15
percent of its high-rise apartments.
• Schmidt, whose pest-control company counts
many hotel owners among its clients, estimates that 3 percent of
Portland hotel rooms have bedbugs. "I haven't seen the numbers
change much," Schmidt says.
• Portland State University gets two to three
reports of bedbugs in its dorms each quarter, says John Eckman,
executive director of PSU auxiliary services. Every Northwest
university, except for Eastern Oregon University, has reported
problems with bedbugs, Eckman says.
• Though the city of Portland plays a minor
role in the bedbug issue, 86 tenants have complained to the city
Bureau of Development Services about bedbug infestations in their
residences during the past four years, says agency spokesman Ross
Bedbugs are tiny, reddish-brown insects that
feed on the blood of people and animals while they're sleeping.
They initially inject victims with an anesthetic, so people don't
realize they've been bitten until later - sometimes days later -
when bite marks appear.
Bedbugs congregate where their victims sleep,
and they come out at night. They hide in mattress seams, box
springs, behind wallpaper, in light switches and floorboards, even
inside alarm clocks and portable bedside stereos. They spread by
hitchhiking rides on bedding, clothing, luggage and furniture.
Though bedbugs don't carry disease, they can
cause considerable stress and sleeplessness, and are very difficult
to eliminate.Kafoury says the local bedbug problem first came to
her attention when many senior citizens and disabled people
reported being traumatized by them.
"You have folks that really get debilitated by
this issue," Duncan says.
Some tenants have been billed hundreds of
dollars when bedbugs were spotted in their dwellings, and others
have been evicted, Duncan says. That makes some people afraid to
report bedbugs, making them harder to contain.
County officials fear people are misusing
pesticides in an effort to kill bedbugs, rather than hiring
professionals. In addition, Kafoury says, "There are pest control
companies out there that don't know what they're doing either."
The bedbug population in the United States
fell dramatically by the mid-20thcentury, beaten back by
pesticides. But the numbers started growing as the insects
developed resistance to pesticides, and with increased
international travel. Long a scourge in New York City, elsewhere on
the East Coast and in the Midwest, the bedbug population started
growing here about three to five years ago.
Though they're more common among transients,
who often live in unsanitary conditions, bedbugs have been found in
million-dollar Pearl District condos and high-end downtown hotels.
They also may be found in homes, apartments, hotels, buses,
airplanes and movie theaters.
"It doesn't matter if you're a rich or poor
person," says Kasandra Walton, a pest control technician for Home
Forward. "They don't discriminate. They like everybody."
One day last week, a crew from Home Forward
sprayed Robert Jarkow's apartment at the Hollywood East high-rise
in Northeast Portland. It was a precautionary move, which Jarkow
appreciated, because several of his neighbors have reported
bedbugs. "They have not been very happy," he says.
Home Forward has an aggressive strategy to
keep bedbugs under control, and now handles it all in-house with
three trained pest control technicians.
"The numbers that we started at, and where
we're at now, we're totally on top of it," Combs says.
Staff concluded that some bedbugs were brought
into the apartments via furniture donated by the Community
Warehouse, and on a futon purchased on Craigslist. "We put a halt
to anything coming in before we checked it," Combs says. They
eliminated free clothing exchanges on site, and started providing
free encasements for mattresses, which suffocate bedbugs.
When bedbugs are discovered, technicians treat
the units three times, every two to three weeks. If bedbugs are
still there on a fourth visit, the treatment cycle begins anew,
Walton says. Follow-up inspections are held every two months.
Home Forward invested $33,000 to build what is
believed to be the first heating room for bedbugs in Oregon, after
hearing about similar facilities in Canada. "It's basically a big
sauna," says Rachael Duke of Home Forward.
Incoming residents to Bud Clark Commons are
asked to place their belongings in the room, which is heated to 194
degrees. That kills the bedbugs and their eggs in a couple hours,
without the need for chemicals. As a result, there've been no
bedbugs reported at the homeless apartments since they opened six
months ago, Duke says.
USED FURNISHINGS A CONCERN
Bedbug experts say mattresses left on the
street for all-comers to take, or other free exchanges, are a
particular hazard for spreading bedbugs. It's believed that some
people put bedbug-infested furniture on the street to avoid the
expense of hauling it to a dump.
Organizations like Community Warehouse, a
Northeast Portland furniture bank that provides donated goods to
low-income people, have a particular challenge with bedbugs. They
get several truckloads of donated furnishings a day, and make it
available to about 50 low-income families a week, says Tom Elston,
Elston acknowledges that his organization gets
one to two calls a month from people claiming bedbugs have been
spotted in the donated bedding and other furnishings. "There's been
some buildings that won't allow furniture in from Community
Warehouse," he adds.
But Elston, who is an active participant on
the county bedbug work group, insists bedbugs are under control at
Community Warehouse because of its extensive screening program.
Every week a dog trained to sniff out bedbugs comes to the
warehouse to "inspect" the entire facility, including newly donated
"We've passed 62 inspections in a row," Elston
says. "We don't have a problem at all -zero."
However, Elston is convinced that many hotels
are doing less than they should to counter bedbugs. When there are
guests staying there, it's unlikely a hotel will close a whole wing
to deal with an infestation, he says.
Hotels are particularly vulnerable because
they are way stations for travelers, including those coming from
overseas, where bedbugs are more common.
But hotel managers are very tightlipped about
bedbugs, for fear of spooking would-be guests, says Schmidt of
Sprague Pest Solutions. "There's nobody that I know that's willing
to talk about having issues," he says. "There was a lot of 'this
doesn't happen in my place' attitude for a long time."
But then Portland's hotel industry was
tarnished by an August 2010 report on CBS News, when a piece ran
about a CBS video producer who reported getting bedbugs from an
unnamed Portland hotel.
That caused more Portland hotel companies to
hire companies to inspect guest rooms and aggressively treat them
for bedbugs, Schmidt says. But that's not cheap: it can cost $375
and up, even more than $1,000, to treat a single hotel room
thoroughly, Schmidt says.
Many hotel companies are very aggressive, but
some not as much, he says, adding that "in general, the hotel
market still has a few more steps to go."
The stigma still attached to bedbugs, and the
lack of a reliable way to report and document bedbug sightings,
poses a huge financial risk for hotels, because some citizens have
taken to starting websites where they list bedbug sightings.
One of those websites, called
Bedbugreports.com, alleges bedbugs were found at four Portland
hotels, including one of the city's fanciest. But there's no way to
substantiate the accuracy of those reports, and some fear that a
rival hotel company might be tempted to spread false reports about
their competitors. "How would you know it's now Hotel A dissing
Hotel B?" Kafoury says.
Experts advise travelers to put their luggage
in the bathtub in their hotel rooms, or those metal folding racks.
Travelers who are concerned might want to talk to the hotels about
their approaches to prevent bedbugs, Duncan says.
Colleges also risk negative ramifications for
their public image, if not their enrollment, from bedbug
Portland State University has opted to be up
front about its bedbug problems.
"We advertise about it all through the halls,
so people know what to look for," Eckman says.
"I think you need to be open about it. If not,
that's when you get into trouble," Ray says.
So far, there have been bedbugs found in three
of PSU's 10 residential buildings, Ray says. PSU sent maintenance
staff to get training on bedbugs, and it inspects all its dorms
twice a year, during student breaks. Rooms are treated when bedbugs
are spotted, as well as after the students leave those dorms.
PSU found that one of the causes of its bedbug
problem was students bringing in old furniture. When the university
moved to restrict such furnishings in the dorms, the number of
bedbug sightings dropped. PSU also decided to provide more
furnishings in its dorms, so students wouldn't have to bring in
Kafoury says there's a need to establish a
central repository in Multnomah County to log complaints about
bedbugs and get a better sense of progress being made.
Until then, the best way to conquer bedbugs or
get them under control is through public education, Kafoury
But as long as the stigma remains, Portlanders
will continue to sweep the problem under the bed. And that's
exactly where bedbugs love to hide.
Bedbug remedies come in hot, cold or cedar oil
April can sniff out bedbugs in a hotel room in
two to five minutes.
The same room would take Mark Schmidt at least
a half hour.
April is one of three bedbug-sniffing dogs
employed by Sprague Pest Solutions Inc. in Portland, which Schmidt
runs as branch manager.
April is much faster and has an accuracy rate
of 93 percent to 95 percent, Schmidt says. Using dogs to ferret out
bedbugs also alleviates the need to tear apart a room to find the
Portland State University is considering using
dogs to sniff out bedbugs, though officials are a bit worried that
students will think there's a bomb threat in the dorms.
Home Forward, formerly known as the Housing
Authority of Portland, finds visual inspections are more reliable
than using dogs, says Ken Combs, Home Forward core maintenance
There also are differing views about how to
kill bedbugs once they're spotted, and how to keep their eggs from
"You can freeze 'em, you can bake 'em, you can
steam 'em," Combs says, or you can apply a variety of toxic and
At Bud Clark Commons, the new Old Town
apartments for homeless people, Home Forward built a heating room,
kept at 194 degrees, that fries bedbugs hidden in luggage, bedding
At its low-income apartments, Home Forward
sprays Cedarcide, an organic pesticide made from cedar oil, to kill
bedbugs, and Phantom residue to keep the eggs from hatching.
"We swear by it," Combs says.
Schmidt thinks the cedar oil claims are
overblown. "To me, it's almost snake oil," he says.
Sprague uses various methods to kill bedbugs,
depending on the situation. For hotels, the company finds heat
treatment works well, with a follow-up application of residue. A
room heated to 120 degrees can kill bedbugs hidden in a mattress,
and can be "100 percent effective in a day's time," Schmidt says.
That way, a hotel doesn't lose more than a day's business.
But it's costly. Heat treatment at a home or
hotel runs about $1 to $2 for every square foot of space, Schmidt
Resources on bedbugs
Multnomah County fact sheets:
Public health impacts, by the U.S. Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/Publications/Bed_Bugs_CDC-EPA_Statement.htm
Pesticides to control bedbugs, from
Environmental Protection Agency:www.epa.gov/pesticides/bedbugs
Oregon Health Authority fact sheet:www.public.health.oregon.gov/HealthyEnvironments/Recreation/PoolsLodging/Documents/oephfactsheet.pdf
Understanding and controlling bedbugs, from
National Pesticide Information Center at Oregon State University:www.npic.orst.edu/pest/bedbug.html
National Geographic video about bedbugs:www.video.nationalgeographic.com/video/animals/bugs-animals/other-bugs/bedbugs
Best management practices for controlling
bedbugs, from the National Pest Management Association:www.npmapestworld.org/publicpolicy/documents/NPMABedBugBMPAPPROVED20110124_prettified.pdf