They want to suck your blood

Colorado Springs Independent
Thursday, May 26, 2011

To most, it looked like a sad, but predictable situation.

The Express Inn on Cimarron and Eighth streets, home to more than 100 poor tenants, was shuttered May 15 after the property fell into foreclosure. Logic will tell you that the rent paid wasn't covering the costs.

But here's the twist: That's not the main reason the Express closed when it did. Rather, a judge decided that the place simply wasn't safe. It has exposed asbestos, crumbling concrete and dangerous electrical problems. And there was something else. Least important from a public health standpoint, but perhaps least desirable from a pedestrian stance, the Express is infested with bedbugs.

The nasty little bloodsuckers aren't known to spread disease, but they can leave you itching and cause nightmares. And they're incredibly hard to shed. Bedbugs can live several months without a blood meal, then literally come back to bite you in the butt.

Here's why you should care: The people who left the Express were taken in at motels, low-cost rentals and shelters across the city. And in all likelihood, they took their bedbugs with them.

Making a comeback

Mostly eradicated from First World countries after World War II, bedbugs are back in a big way.

The insects, which are resistant to many types of pesticides, are about the size and color of an appleseed when they're fully grown, and generally feed while people are sleeping. During the day, they hide along creases and cracks in a room, particularly in and around beds.

They're excellent hitchhikers, hastening their spread. In New York City, bedbugs have shown up in retail stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria's Secret. Even Lincoln Center has had the bugs. In Washington, D.C., one hospital has seen two bedbug outbreaks since March.

Really, they're everywhere. In July 2010, the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky released a survey that found that 95 percent of participating U.S. exterminators had encountered bedbugs in the last year. A decade before, only a quarter of respondents had.

"Seven years ago we had, as far as I knew, almost no bedbug complaints ... but now we have entire apartment complexes infected," says Colorado Springs Code Enforcement Officer Ken Lewis. "... It's so expensive to get rid of them that now some of the landlords are starting to bill the tenants."

'You're just unlucky'

There are two ways to kill bedbugs: with heat or with chemicals.

Both methods are available locally, as is a bedbug-sniffing mutt named Macaroni that can tell you whether you have an infestation, and if so, where the bastards are hiding.

Macaroni works across Colorado and the Western region with his handler, Walter Penny, who founded Denver's Bed Bug K9, LLC in 2008, after working in pest control. Macaroni was purchased from a company in Florida that trains dogs to sniff out just about anything, from short circuits in underground power cables to endangered snakes.

"People are like, 'Your dog does what? You're making that up,'" Penny says with a laugh. "But I absolutely love what I do."

Over the years, Macaroni has found bedbugs in an $11.5 million Aspen home, on entire floors of high-rise office buildings, in hotels, theaters, dorms and call centers. He charges $250 an hour.

After Penny and Macaroni's work is done - or an exterminator has discovered an infestation - the real work begins.

Frank Morales' Eco-Rid LLC, founded in August of last year, heats homes to well above 122 degrees, hot enough to kill bedbugs. The company uses high-powered heaters and fans and sensors, while moving furniture and belongings to ensure everything from the core of a couch to the depth of a closet gets hot. On average, Eco-Rid will heat a home to 135 degrees for five hours, which costs about $1 per square foot. One treatment is usually enough.

Business in the Springs, Morales says, has been brisk. Bedbugs are spreading in tony neighborhoods and cheap apartments. One recent case he responded to: a grandmother, who brought bugs home from a hotel she stayed at while attending a funeral. Another recent one: a day care facility. Coming up: A motel that was infected by a former Express resident.

Morales says it can happen to anyone. "You're just unlucky," he explains.

Charles Osborne, service manager for the Springs' Mug-A-Bug Pest & Termite Control, tells a similar tale. Bedbug calls, he says, have increased "from one to three [cases] a year to three a day."

With the economy down, Osborne says he sees many people trying to treat bed bugs themselves - a bad idea. People will start by throwing out furniture - which is often picked up by resourceful Dumpster divers who wind up spreading the problem to their own address. Others will spray the pesticide-resistant bugs, leading to unhealthy chemical exposure, and encouraging irritated bedbugs to spread through more of the home.

Osborne uses everything from heat to a variety of pesticides to exterminate. Getting rid of the bugs usually takes several visits, and a typical one- or two-bedroom home might cost $240 for an initial treatment, and $90 for each follow-up. The residents have to cooperate by cleaning up their homes, and clearing out clutter where bugs can hide.

"You pretty much have to go through everything," he says. "It's pretty detailed and it takes quite some time."