Waging war against bedbugs

Times Herald-Record (NY)
Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Loathsome bedbugs were the last thing Chris, a 41-year-old professional bodyguard and actor, expected to find in his rambling old farmhouse in bucolic western Orange County.

There couldn't be hideous bedbugs, not where the cows roam and there's no one else around his house but him.

"'No way,' I said, 'you got to be kidding me,'" yelled Chris, when he lifted his bedsheet recently and spotted a bedbug crawling up his leg. (He's so embarrassed he didn't want his last name used.

Chris is one of the latest local victims in a strong comeback by blood-sucking bedbugs that's fueled by increased travel by people and bedbug resistance to some pesticides.

"There's now a bedbug epidemic around here," says Tim Mills, owner of Middletown-based American Pest Control. "Five years ago, I'd get one call a year. Now I average one a day."

And forget the myth that they attack only in slums. Anyone's blood will do. "They're all over Orange County," says Mills. "I've treated for them in the City of Newburgh and in a mansion in Tuxedo Park."

Why care? After all, medical wisdom has been that bedbugs don't carry disease.

But Canadian scientists recently discovered drug-resistant staph bacteria - MRSA - on bedbugs and said that people who scratch their bites could make breaks in the skin that might make them more susceptible to germs such as MRSA.

That's all supposition, so far, points out dermatologist Dr. Steven Wolinsky of Orange Dermatology Associates in Monroe and Warwick. "Most people who have MRSA don't have bedbug bites," he says.

Bedbugs do cause extreme mental health problems, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calls bedbugs "pests of significant public health importance."

"People get very upset," says Wolinsky. "It's the idea of something getting into your bed at night and attacking you."

Cornwall-based therapist George Toth adds, "It can be very anxiety-provoking, disorienting, even disabling, depending on how long it takes to solve," he says. "It affects your sleep; your life is on hold until they're gone. The insect can seem to be taking control of your life."

That's because an infestation can also make you ashamed and desperate. Bedbugs are extremely tenacious and very expensive to expel.

"I felt like I was dirty, like I couldn't tell anybody; it was bad," says Chris. "You don't want anybody over.

"I was freaking out, going nuts, insane," says Chris, who says he paid hundreds of dollars to get rid of bedbugs that seemed to crawl out from nowhere. "I'm getting into cabs now and wondering who was there before me. Someone with bedbugs?"

That ability to get around may explain why and how bedbugs crawled back from relative obscurity and are now showing up almost everywhere.

All bedbugs need to get started, says state entomologist Tim McCabe, "is one pregnant female."

She can lay 200 eggs in two months. Each can live up to a year. Do the math, and you can see why Mills has found people "with bedbugs all over the place."

"They're not just in homes," says National Pest Management Association spokeswoman Missy Henriksen. "They're in schools, health facilities, offices," just about anywhere a small, very flat bug about a quarter-inch long can squeeze itself.

That includes, she adds, your window frame space between the glass and the wood. Even if that looks impossible to you, Mills has seen bedbugs scramble from hiding after he turned a hair dryer on the tiny crack between the window glass and wood.

Don't panic is the best advice, says Henriksen.

"People don't want to talk about it," she says. "They're still stigmatized if they have them."

"First go to a pest control company for a free estimate to see if you've got bedbugs," says Henriksen. "Bedbugs might not be your problem."

Calls for help are flooding Hyde Park-based Craig Thomas Pest Control service manager Bob Gaul. "We've got two guys doing it eight hours a day," he says.

And they've even got a specially trained bedbug-sniffing dog whose nose is 96-98 percent accurate in locating bedbugs, says Gaul. The bedbug-sniffing dog, named Promise, finds the critters by picking up the beetle's smell (said to be sort of like coriander).

WHERE TO FIND HELP

The rise in bedbugs is blamed partly on a lack of public education. Here are some resources where you can find out practically everything you need to know:

• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extensive facts atwww.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/Topics/bedbugs.htm.

• National Pest Management Association offers videos and what-to-do's at www.pestworld.org/for-consumers/pest-frequently-asked-questions/bedbug-faq.

• The Orange County Health Department provides good general bedbug information. The county is required to educate people, but not to control bedbugs. That task is up to local municipalities, which can require landlords to fix the problem.

• Go online and search "bedbugs and control and Orange County" for an extensive list of professionals across the mid-Hudson. This also includes some home remedies.

• Cornell Cooperative Extension in Middletown accepts bedbugs for identification. Call 344-1234 for more information.

KEEP BEDBUGS AT BAY: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Lou Sorkin is a go-to bedbug expert for the New York Entomological Society, with his own consulting company, Entsult Associates of Rye Brook. He's also an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History.

Q. What should people do to stop bedbugs?

A. They must be vigilant and knowledgeable. Get them in the early stages of infestation. Look behind headboards, pull ruffles around the bed. But bedbugs can sometimes be 10-30 feet away from the bed. They can be in a couch or comfy chair, and also luggage and backpacks, and that's how they can be transported - even to offices. Bedbugs can crawl to you in bed from closets - typically close to where people stay for long periods of time. If there are especially heavy infestations, they can be out in the open - most people don't think about that. They've been found in picture frames, moldings above the bed, and on walls and ceilings with wrinkles and cracks, and stucco surfaces.

Q. Can you fight this blood sucker yourself? Diatomaceous earth (ground up diatoms) works?

A. That works, but never buy the pool grade; it's like asbestos because it's crystalline. Get the food grade labeled for pest control, which works well. It dehydrates them. Also, put pesticide-impregnated cloth on box springs and encasements of mattresses, but especially covering box springs. A vacuum cleaner is also very helpful to remove exposed bugs. Eggs are glued in place and you have to scrape these off. Low vapor steam systems are also used to treat floors and furniture. The clothes dryer, even more than the clothes washer, is a very important tool. You can find a lot of these things online.

Q. Is itching a sign?

A. I don't itch. But many people do. There can be slight to no hives. That's the whole problem with diagnosis. There can be slight to no hives to very rare anaphylactic reaction.

Q. Is it always expensive to fight them?

A. It's very expensive - that's one of the biggest problems. But the pest control company will provide instructions for the homeowner, and there is lots they can do in preparation before treatment (like bagging all clothing).

Q. Do all bedbugs look alike?

A. You probably don't realize it, but there are different stages. One is a just-hatched 1-millimeter pale-colored stage that is often missed because people are told they're all about a quarter-inch long, or bigger, reddish-brown and flat. The pale nymph stages show blood color through their pale skin during feeding.

Q. At least bedbugs bite at night - you're safe during the day?

A. Feeding can take place any time in light or dark. You're not safe in bed in the daytime. People think if they turn on the light, that dissuades them. That's not true at all.

Q. Where do they come from?

A. Probably evolved from a bat parasite in the Mediterranean. The Romans used sulfur and other chemicals they burned that were probably dangerous to us and smelled very bad, but probably worked.

Q. Do they have natural enemies we can use?

A. None that can do much. There are house centipedes and a masked bedbug hunter, some ants and spiders, but they don't really make a dent.

TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE: MYTH OR FACT?

MYTH: Bedbugs are a thing of the past.

FACT: Bedbugs came into America with the early settlers and were common in Colonial times.

In the past decade, bedbugs have been found in every state in America, and are becoming a major problem in big cities and small towns across the country.

MYTH: Bedbugs only live in filthy homes.

FACT: Bedbugs have been found in every type of dwelling, from five-star hotels, apartment buildings and college dorms to single-family homes and everywhere in between. They are more interested in places to hide where humans are present than in unsanitary conditions.

MYTH: I'll only get bedbugs if I travel in the Third World.

FACT: While international travel may increase your risk of transporting bedbugs, they regularly hitchhike from hotels that are closer to home. Hotels and motels can be bedbug havens because of the fresh crop of people each night and the opportunity to climb aboard luggage.

MYTH: Bedbugs only live in the bedroom.

FACT: While the bedroom is a great place for nocturnal insects like bedbugs, as infestations become more severe, bedbugs will move into furniture, fabrics, wall crevices and flooring cracks throughout your home.

A licensed pest management professional will carefully inspect your entire dwelling for signs of infestations while making a treatment plan.

MYTH: I can get rid of bedbugs by leaving my house empty for a few weeks.

FACT: Adult bedbugs can live as long as 12 months without a meal, so a long vacation won't provide you with relief. The only way to deal with the problem is to treat it directly and monitor results over the long haul.

A licensed pest management professional will help you eliminate bedbugs from your home.

MYTH: Bedbugs are so embarrassing that I should never tell anyone that I had a problem.

FACT: Having a bedbug infestation in your home can cause emotional stress. If you need help, seek help. But keeping an infestation secret from your friends and neighbors can lead to further spread, especially in apartment buildings, dormitories and other multi-unit living arrangements.

Keep in mind you didn't go out and purposely bring bedbugs home. They are insects of opportunity, and they found you or your personal belongings and came home with you. In many cases it's friends, relatives, workers etc., who may bring bedbugs into a home ... not always the homeowner.

To stop the spread, consider telling your landlord, school housing administration or building manager, and have them get in touch with a pest management professional right away. Keep in mind that if you try to get rid of them yourself and choose the wrong product you could chase or move the bugs to adjoining apartments or living areas.

Do-it-yourself efforts often make matters worse and can lead to further spread of an infestation. Professionals use a variety of products in well-thought-out strategies to gain control.

Source: The Bedbug Institute; www.bedbuginstitute.com