BEDBUGS

JAY ROMANO

BEDBUGS

Sleep tight . . . and hope they don’t bite

BY JAY ROMANO

They’re about one-eighth inch long, reddish brown in color, with oval,
flattened bodies. Though flightless, they skitter quickly over floors, walls
and ceilings. They are world travelers, hitching rides in suitcases and
clothing, and world-class squatters, equally happy in four-star hotel rooms,
homeless shelters and luxury apartments.
They can lay 500 eggs in a lifetime and can wait a year for a meal. By day,
they hide in any available crack or crevice. At night, they emerge to suck
the blood of mammals like us. They are Cimex lectularius — bedbugs — and
they could be coming to a crevice near you. ”This is one of the hottest bug
issues in a generation,” said Dr. Michael F. Potter, a professor of urban
entomology at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture in
Lexington. “Bedbugs are going ballistic.”
Potter said that while bedbug infestations were common in the United States
before World War II, the widespread use of DDT virtually eliminated them
here. But they remained prevalent elsewhere in the world. Now, as a result
of immigration and increasing international travel, bedbugs are back.
First, the good news: ”Bedbugs have never been shown to be able to transmit
any human diseases,” he said. Now, the bad news: “This is a blood-sucking
parasite that feeds on humans. And if they’re in your house, they’re going
to find you.”
But wait; you’re neat, clean, and tidy. How could these repulsive creatures
get into your home?
”You’re staying in a hotel room in Europe and you set your suitcase on the
floor,” he said. “They crawl into the suitcase, you head back home, and
boom, the next thing you know you’re a blood meal in your own bedroom.”
In fact, another way one might bring the bugs home is by picking up
furniture at garage sales, flea markets and even off the curb.
”This is one of the most difficult challenges facing the pest control
industry,” said Richard Cooper, technical director for Cooper Pest
Solutions in Lawrenceville, N.J. He said that while bedbugs are typically
found where they can attack people, “they also disperse in an unpredictable
fashion.”
Getting rid of the mattress and box spring doesn’t guarantee getting rid of
all the bugs, Cooper said, so he does not automatically recommend
jettisoning the bedding. ”When we work with mattresses and box springs, we
use steam to get a direct kill and a vacuum for physical removal,” he said.
(It might help to encase the mattress and box spring in hypoallergenic
covers that should keep bugs from getting out or in.)
For other hiding places, Cooper uses ”synthetic pyrethroids” — pesticides
that kill bugs on contact and are effective for several weeks. But even
doing that is no panacea, and any pest control company that guarantees total
elimination should be looked on with caution. ”Until three or four years
ago, most pest control experts had never even seen a bedbug,” he said.
“This is an extremely challenging insect. We’re not going to be able to
just waltz in and make this problem go away.”

They’re about one-eighth inch long, reddish brown in color, with oval,
flattened bodies. Though flightless, they skitter quickly over floors, walls
and ceilings. They are world travelers, hitching rides in suitcases and
clothing, and world-class squatters, equally happy in four-star hotel rooms,
homeless shelters and luxury apartments.
They can lay 500 eggs in a lifetime and can wait a year for a meal. By day,
they hide in any available crack or crevice. At night, they emerge to suck
the blood of mammals like us. They are Cimex lectularius — bedbugs — and
they could be coming to a crevice near you. ”This is one of the hottest bug
issues in a generation,” said Dr. Michael F. Potter, a professor of urban
entomology at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture in
Lexington. “Bedbugs are going ballistic.”
Potter said that while bedbug infestations were common in the United States
before World War II, the widespread use of DDT virtually eliminated them
here. But they remained prevalent elsewhere in the world. Now, as a result
of immigration and increasing international travel, bedbugs are back.
First, the good news: ”Bedbugs have never been shown to be able to transmit
any human diseases,” he said. Now, the bad news: “This is a blood-sucking
parasite that feeds on humans. And if they’re in your house, they’re going
to find you.”
But wait; you’re neat, clean, and tidy. How could these repulsive creatures
get into your home?
”You’re staying in a hotel room in Europe and you set your suitcase on the
floor,” he said. “They crawl into the suitcase, you head back home, and
boom, the next thing you know you’re a blood meal in your own bedroom.”
In fact, another way one might bring the bugs home is by picking up
furniture at garage sales, flea markets and even off the curb.
”This is one of the most difficult challenges facing the pest control
industry,” said Richard Cooper, technical director for Cooper Pest
Solutions in Lawrenceville, N.J. He said that while bedbugs are typically
found where they can attack people, “they also disperse in an unpredictable
fashion.”
Getting rid of the mattress and box spring doesn’t guarantee getting rid of
all the bugs, Cooper said, so he does not automatically recommend
jettisoning the bedding. ”When we work with mattresses and box springs, we
use steam to get a direct kill and a vacuum for physical removal,” he said.
(It might help to encase the mattress and box spring in hypoallergenic
covers that should keep bugs from getting out or in.)
For other hiding places, Cooper uses ”synthetic pyrethroids” — pesticides
that kill bugs on contact and are effective for several weeks. But even
doing that is no panacea, and any pest control company that guarantees total
elimination should be looked on with caution. ”Until three or four years
ago, most pest control experts had never even seen a bedbug,” he said.
“This is an extremely challenging insect. We’re not going to be able to
just waltz in and make this problem go away.”

BY JOSEPH COUTURE

Toronto’s homeless and under-housed have one more thing to deal with this year as the cold weather approaches.

Over the last two years, the city’s shelters and rooming houses have gradually become severely infested with bedbugs.

Just ask Jim, who sleeps in shelters regularly. When asked, he rolls up his sleeve and shows me an oozing wound that started out as a bite from a bedbug that got infected and began to weep pus. “This is what you get in shelters,” he says.

The bugs, formally known as cimex lectularius, are about half a centimetre long, wingless, mahogany-coloured and live in dark places, like people’s bedding or clothing, and come out to feed at night.

“They bite a chunk of your flesh and feast on your blood,” says Kathy Hardill, a public-health nurse with the Regent Park Community Health Centre.

She says the bugs inject an anti-coagulant agent into the wound to thin the blood. This usually causes an itchy welt and some people end up with allergic reactions that can vary in degree, though they’re almost always considerably more serious than mosquito or flea bites.

The bugs can drink up to six times their body mass in blood in a three-to-10 minute feeding session and can live for extended periods without eating (up to 550 days, in fact) making them hard to get rid of.

“Bedbugs were nearly eliminated in the ’60s by pesticides like DDT,” says Hardill. “But since those chemicals have fallen out of use, the bedbugs have been steadily making a comeback.”

Hardill says that the scourge started first in San Francisco and New York a few years ago and then migrated north to Canada in the last couple of years.

University of Kentucky entomologist Michael F. Potter says on his university website that, “It often seems that bedbugs arise from nowhere. The bugs are efficient hitchhikers and are usually transported in on luggage, clothing, beds, furniture, etc.”

He says that, unlike pests like cockroaches, which often live on filth, bedbugs can thrive in clean environments and good hygiene does not necessarily protect you from infestations. This is bad news, even for those of us not sleeping in shelters.

Hardill says officials here in Toronto have not shown the will to effectively deal with the problem. “They are difficult but not impossible to control, but no one has taken the lead and developed a comprehensive strategy to deal with the problem.”

Because the shelter system is what Hardill describes as a “hodgepodge” of different groups functioning independently with limited resources, it’s hard to find a solution without help from the city, she says. The same is true in American cities that are still struggling with the problem.

“Public Health doesn’t feel it needs to act because bedbugs do not carry disease, but it is a public-health issue when you consider how it torments and stresses people out and that affects their health in various other ways,” she says. Public Health’s Frank Giorno says that they do have a fact-sheet on their website, but that since they give precedence to contagious diseases, Public Health feels bedbugs ought to be each shelter’s individual responsibility. A problem, it would seem, since apparently the only solutions require system-wide simultaneous action.

This latest addition to the long list of problems with Toronto shelters comes just three years after a deadly tuberculosis outbreak called attention to the fact that 35-40 per cent of Toronto’s homeless population is infected with a latent form of this highly contagious and mostly forgotten disease.

Dr. Tamara Wallington says that TB is primarily a respiratory infection, but can affect the circulatory system, lymphatic system, bones and joints and is spread through an airborne germ which gets most of its locomotive power from coughing.

The dormant form of TB turns active in about 10 per cent of people, generally those with compromised immune systems. Like the homeless.

TB is one of the world’s most infectious diseases. Nearly one-third of the world’s population is infected with the bacterium, and nearly 3 million people die from it a year, making it second only to AIDS among contagious diseases in the scope of its destruction.

Nurse Hardill says that constant coughing and sneezing and spreading of germs and diseases in the shelters makes them a nightmare to endure. “You have every kind of infectious disease around in the shelters,” she says.

Dr. Jon-Paul Voroney, a physician who has worked in shelters, agrees. “You get people with intestinal disorders who become incontinent. It makes for a pretty unpleasant night if the guy next to you can’t control his bowels,” he says.

“When people are tired and sick and the noise is unbearable, fights break out and you face a new threat to your well-being,” he says. “The stress level in these places is through the roof and that in itself makes you more vulnerable to catching something.”

Public Health was happy to talk about TB in the shelters but they did not return calls about bedbugs.

“The other night the old guy a couple of beds from me puked his guts out and passed out,” says Jim, rolling his sleeve back down. “We all had to lie there all night two feet away from him,” he tells me, obviously a little humiliated.

“This is the choice I face. I can either sleep with the bugs and the buggers, or I can sleep on the street,” he says. “And in this town, with some of the people around here, you’re liable to get a kick in the head if you sleep out in public. So what am I supposed to do?”