You probably know that there’s an epidemic of bed bugs in the U.S., but chances are, you don’t know anyone who has been afflicted. I think I know why. For seven months, I was plagued by unseen bed bugs but never mentioned it beyond family members. I was afraid I would be treated as a pariah.
Would you want me sitting on your sofa?
I did sit on other people’s furniture. But in my defense, I was uncertain—for a long time—about whether bed bugs were the cause of the red itchy welts that first appeared on my back one afternoon at the end of the summer. In the weeks that followed, more nickel-sized itchy welts appeared, usually mid-morning. I assumed something outside was biting through my clothes—it wouldn’t have been the first time. Still, I had never experienced bites like these before.
Bed bugs were considered, but then discounted. It is impossible, several experts told us, for two people to sleep in the same bed but only one attacked. My husband, as it turns out, is not as enticing to insects. Oddly enough, he was bitten only once—three welts in a row looked just like mine. He was, however, completely unaware because they did not itch.
Initially, the welts could have been mistaken for hives, but hives don’t stick around in the same spot for a week, said the dermatologist. I had consulted him in the naïve belief that a dermatologist would know just by looking at the bites whether bedbugs were attacking me.
The nights I spent away from home on business trips, I was fine. And I was fine when I slept in our guest room, which I did most of the time in desperation and against all prevailing advice (if it’s bed bugs, the infestation will move to another room). Each time I ventured back to my own bed, there would be more bites.
I would learn that it’s impossible to diagnose bed bugs by the appearance of the bites because they can be so inconsistent. Once, when bitten on the side of an ankle, the swollen area simply looked like a sprained ankle. In other body parts like the calf, a large area would swell and stay hard for almost two weeks. More often, a dime-sized hard welt could be felt beneath the skin. And sometimes they looked like ordinary mosquito bites.
There was nothing ordinary, however, about the intense itching that lasted at least 48 hours. It was impossible to resist scratching to the point of drawing blood, though I’d read that this only intensifies the irritation and may lead to a secondary infection. By the third day after a new set of bites, the itchiness would decrease to the level of an ordinary mosquito bite.
As the months went by, I became more sensitive to the bites and no longer had to wait until mid-morning to learn that the deed had been done. Nothing relieved the extreme itchiness. In time, I became so sensitive to the bites that the itch would wake me up two hours after getting into bed. More times than I care to count, my husband and I would remove and wash all the bedding (dryer heat to 140 degrees will kill bugs) and vacuum the bedroom, only to have the attacks continue. We would jump out of bed with flashlights after a new bite but never found anything. No reputable exterminator would treat a home, we were told, until the offending insect was identified, and we had nothing to show for our efforts.
By mid-winter, I learned that, yes indeed, bed bugs will bite only one of two people sleeping in the same bed. I was listening to our local public radio station and happened on an interview with two bed bug experts, Richard Cooper and Richard Pollack (see below). When they opened the phones, a woman called in to say that her boyfriend is bitten continuously, but she isn’t. Both experts said that was not unusual!!
Though we still hadn’t captured a single insect, we got an exterminator to check out our bedroom. (The preferred term is now pest control or pest management professional, but I like the word exterminator because it holds more promise.) He searched all around the bed with a flashlight. He, too, could find nothing and assured us that we probably do not have bedbugs because there is no telltale sign of infestation, no tiny black spots (feces), no cast-off skins, etc.
Be happy it’s not bed bugs, the pest control expert said, having your apartment exterminated is costly and time-consuming. “It’s almost as bad as moving. You have to get everything out of the closets, and drawers, bag all your clothes, move everything out of your apartment except the furniture.” After hearing what we had been doing with the glue traps, white sheets (for better visibility), flashlight, etc., he told us there was one thing we hadn’t tried: turn the box spring upside down.
Amazingly, that did it. Two dark brown oval-shaped bugs about a quarter inch long were found on the wooden rim of the box spring. They were bottled and sent to the lab. The good/bad news came the next day. They were bedbugs. Of course, I was relieved to have a reason for the bites, but the prospect of bagging and moving all our stuff outside was daunting. Our duplex apartment is in an attached brick row house. No garage and a tiny backyard. It rained softly on the day of the extermination.
It cost us more than $4,700 altogether: $2,167 with no guarantee for the extermination (warning: two bed bug experts told me that this price was excessive); $1,500 for a new mattress and box spring (see below); and the rest for rug cleaning. Because we had such a minor infestation and because all the bites had occurred only in the bedroom, we were told that the parlor floor needed only minimal treatment. We did not spread the bugs to either daughter’s apartment or to my nephew who spent several weeks in our guest room.
Remembering the end of a bed bug article I’d read in the New Yorker magazine years ago, I slashed our mattress before putting it out for the sanitation truck. The couple in that article had put their infested mattress out on the sidewalk for collection plastered with signs saying, “Bed bugs. Do not take.” They went off for a few hours, and upon return were horrified to see that someone had taken the mattress.
You might wonder how the bedbugs got to our bedroom. We do, too. We did not order a mattress from one of those companies that pick up the old mattress and put it in the back of the truck with all the new mattresses. And we did not bring any second-hand mattress, headboard or any other type of furniture into the house. Initially, I discounted the most obvious possibility—a hotel stay—but then I learned, when writing the accompanying articles (see below), that there is a long lag time (about 2-4 months) between the introduction of bedbugs and when the victim becomes aware of the bites. I had stayed at a hotel three and a half months before the initial bites.
The unsettling part of the conclusion to my story is how unsettled it is. The bed bugs have returned twice (necessitating more exterminations) in the 35 days since our apartment was initially treated. I know it only from the bites. I still haven’t seen a single bed bug beyond the two found on our box spring.
Entomologist Richard Pollack Reacts to the above article about my Bed Bug Experience
When Richard Pollack, PhD, Laboratory of Public Health Entomology at the at the Harvard School of Public Health, read about my bedbug experiences, he said it was a mistake to throw out our mattress and box spring (until he heard they were around 18 years old). “It’s a waste of money. You can treat the mattress and box spring safely. There are insecticide products for use on mattresses and their risk to people should be small.”
“I actively dissuade people from throwing out their mattresses because of the risk of spreading the bugs,” said Pollack. “Besides you can get a mattress bag that completely encases the mattress. These mattress casings are intended for reducing dust mites for people with allergies, but they may reduce the risk that the mattress you retain will foster bedbugs. When closed well, any bug or egg that may be stuck inside will be imprisoned, and the chances of anything getting through—or feeding through the fabric—are almost nil.”
Pollack was asked how consumers would know whether extermination products described as “virtually safe” are in fact, virtually safe. “I recommend that the pest control companies offer potential customers a packet of written information that includes a description of the plan for extermination; the insecticides that will be used, and where they will be used; the expected outcome; how long it will take to rid the home of pests—one month, two months—and a copy of the label that accompanies the can or gallon jug of the product to be used. The label should be like a drug label, stating what it’s for, how it works, the risks and benefits. It’s good to get everything in writing beforehand.”
After reading my story, Dr. Pollack said he thought my concern about sitting on other people’s furniture was excessive. Yes it is possible to bring bedbugs to another person’s house on your clothing, he explained. “But you said that you went for a long time suspecting bedbugs but never seeing them,” he continued. “If, however, you know you have an infestation, I believe you do have an obligation to be very careful not to bring personal possessions into someone else’s home and certainly not place them on someone’s bed.”
How Bedbug Experts Protect Themselves
Three experts were asked what they do to protect themselves from bedbugs and for advice about finding a reputable pest control company. All said they are extremely wary of hotels and conduct a thorough inspection of the room before unpacking their luggage.
“Regardless of how many stars a hotel has on its marquee or whether it has a flea bag look, I do the same thing,” said Richard Pollack, PhD, Laboratory of Public Health Entomology at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Upon entering the room, I put the luggage—still completely zipped—on the tubular luggage rack—bedbugs can’t climb smooth surfaces. And I never put luggage or clothing on the bed or chair,” he said in a telephone interview.
“First I strip the bed and pile all the bedding on one side of the mattress. Then I take a quick look around the mattress, especially the seams, and the box spring,” he continued. “I look for live bugs, cast skins, fecal spots that look like a series of black ballpoint pen dots. In a few places I’d go so far as to detach the headboard from the bed, which in many hotels is usually just resting on a bar. I also look around the framed pictures which are usually well secured to the wall in most hotels.”
Once the trip is over, Christian Borre, account executive at Systematic Pest Elimination in Hillsdale, New Jersey, does not bring the luggage into his house right away. “If it’s a 95 degree day, I keep the suitcase in the trunk of the car. Bedbugs can’t stand heat above 140 degrees” said Borre in a telephone interview. “If it’s winter, I leave it out overnight in the car trunk.” When he is ready to inspect his suitcase for bugs, he puts it on his deck, takes everything out and goes through all parts of the suitcase with a flashlight. “Then I bang the suitcase against the deck to see if anything falls out.”
According to the prevailing theory, the U.S. is experiencing a resurgence of bedbugs for the first time in 50 years because DDT was banned, but Richard Cooper, technical director for Cooper Pest Solutions in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, disagrees. He believes that bedbugs first got a foothold in the U.S. in hotels. “For many years, the baseboards of hotels and apartments would be sprayed on a monthly basis to get rid of cockroaches, and in the process, bed bugs may also have been inadvertently eliminated as they were being introduced.
“In the mid to late 90’s, the pest management industry changed the style of pest control in hotels and apartment buildings as they switched from routine sprays of organophosphate and synthetic pyrethroids to insect baits for the control of cockroaches and ants. These new methods provided excellent control for roaches and ants, but may have opened the door for bed bugs to regain a foothold, as baits have no effect on bed bugs.” Cooper said in a telephone interview, adding that international travel, especially from developing countries, also plays a role the resurgence in bed bugs.
Cooper said that people frequently have the misconception that bed bugs only hang around the bed. What’s more, “people often don’t know what they’re looking for.” Misidentification is apparently fairly common. “More than half the things submitted to our lab are not bed bugs,” said Pollack, “many are simply carpet beetles that everyone has.”
Say a lab confirms the presence of bed bugs, then what? How do you find a reputable pest control company? “Do your homework in the same way you would if a contractor told you that you need thousands of dollars worth of work on your house,” advised Pollack. “Get quotes from other companies, ask for references from satisfied customers, ask what happens if the bugs return—will you charge me more?—and check with the Bureau of Consumer Affairs.”
In some cases a single treatment will suffice; other cases are more difficult and could take months, said Pollack. “It’s a bad sign if a guy comes to your house with the equipment on his back and starts spraying; instead the person should come in with a flashlight and clipboard and first do a careful inspection.”
“Ask what the plan of attack will be,” suggested Borre, who says he gives written instructions to his customers about what his company will do, what the customers must do in terms of preparing their home in advance, and what to expect from the service. “Ask about the followup because the bugs can come back. Ask what recourse you have if the bugs come back. The price will be high because of the tediousness of the process.”
Cooper cautioned, “You don’t want someone who will just do the initial service with no follow ups. There should be a minimum of three followups. “Visit the National Pest Management Association Web site to see which companies have a Quality Pro designation, which means they meet the high standards set by the industry, but if a company isn’t listed, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good company,” he said, adding that a company with an entomologist (scientist who studies insects) on the staff is a good sign.
“Nothing you can do will guarantee that bed bugs will not be introduced into your home; however due diligence during and after travel as well as care when purchasing used items, particularly furniture will help in reducing the likelihood of introducing bed bugs” said Cooper. People who live in a single-family home with lots of distance from neighbors are less likely to get bed bugs than people living in multiple-family buildings that share walls with others, he explained, then things are out of your control.
For more information:
The following organizations have Web sites complete with pictures of bedbugs and advice:
Richard Cooper’s company www.cooperpest.com
National Pest Management Association (www.pestworld.com) explains Quality Pro standards, and lists the companies that say they meet them.
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Maryann Napoli, Center for Medical Consumers ©