Saturday, September 11, 2010

Goodnight, sleep tight... Don't let the bedbugs bite

Sep 11, 2010

The pest's resurgence in the US may hit epidemic levels
By Tracy Quek

WASHINGTON: After relocating from Beijing to San Francisco for a new job in 2006, Mr Maciej Ceglowski checked into a well-known budget chain hotel while hunting for an apartment.

After only one day, he checked out. The reason? Red, itchy bites all over his arms and legs, and the discovery of a dead bedbug on the bedside table.

The experience was so traumatic and information on infestation so lacking, that the 35-year-old computer programmer created, a website which lets netizens report encounters with bedbugs in their homes, hotels and other places.

In recent months, the number of reports has jumped from 20 a day to an average of 150. The increase coincided with recent United States media reports about bedbug infestations across the country, the likes of which have not been seen in more than 60 years.

Said Mr Ceglowski: 'It is amazing that we live in 2010, but are sort of powerless against these very old and tenacious parasites.'

A common household pest for centuries, the tiny reddish-brown parasites were virtually eradicated in the mid-20th century in the US, due to the use of strong, now-banned insecticides. But now, the itch-causing bloodsuckers are back in a big way.

Their numbers have grown so quickly that the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint statement on Aug 5 that the US was 'now experiencing an alarming resurgence'.

The findings of the first Comprehensive Global Bed Bug Study, released in July and conducted by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky, painted a similarly alarming scenario.

The study surveyed nearly 1,000 pest management companies, which reported a 57 per cent rise in bedbug-related calls over the past five years. And the calls came from condominiums, as well as hotels, motels and college dormitories.

Bedbugs have also found their way into cinemas, high-end clothing stores, corporate offices, and even hospitals across the country.

This past summer, not only tourists were swarming Manhattan. New York City appears to be 'ground zero' of what some are calling America's bedbug epidemic.

Clothing retailers Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister and Victoria's Secret have closed stores in Manhattan to deal with bedbug outbreaks. The headquarters of media empire Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, Warner Brothers and Time magazine, brought in dogs to sniff out the critters.

The bugs were also found in Google's Manhattan office, in the Brooklyn district attorney's office, the Empire State Building, a triage room in the Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, and a movie theatre in Times Square.

In Boston, environmental officials were out in force this month slapping bright orange stickers on furniture and other items left on sidewalks by university students. 'Caution this may contain bedbugs. Do not remove!' the stickers warn.

The insects live in the crevices and folds of mattresses, sofas and sheets. They dine on human blood at night, but can stay hidden for up to a year without feeding. They are also fast breeders.

Mr Steve Jacobs, an entomologist at Penn State University, said: 'Bedbugs don't discriminate based on location or wealth, they are equal-opportunity feeders.'

While the exact cause of the bedbug rebound is not known, experts attribute it to increased international and domestic travel.

The pests love to 'hitch-hike' in suitcases, handbags, gym bags, laptop cases and clothing. Humans unknowingly transport them from residence to residence, city to city.

Other reasons include the insect's resistance to some of the commonly used pesticides which replaced the banned DDT. The trend towards using insect bait may have also added to the problem.

'Years ago, we used insecticidal sprays. When we were using sprays, we may have been controlling bedbugs, but not knowing it. Now that we've stopped spraying, they have made a resurgence,' Mr Jacobs explained. While the traps are known to control ants and cockroaches, they are useless against bedbugs.

Experts also point to another less obvious reason for the bedbug resurgence in homes - the thrifting trend.

Thrifting, or second-hand shopping, is one way people that unknowingly introduce bedbugs into their homes, said Mr Jacobs. 'People buy used furniture... thinking they are saving a buck. But in the end, you're saddled with a huge problem that can be very costly to get rid of.'

Bedbugs are notoriously tough to kill. Over three-quarters of the pest control companies surveyed in the bedbug study said they were the most difficult pests to eradicate, more so than cockroaches, ants and termites.

Pest control professionals normally use low-odour sprays, dusts and aerosols to battle the bugs. Often, more than one visit is needed.

Although bedbugs do not cause serious health problems other than an itch or allergic reaction, they elicit such emotional distress that people are driven to extremes to be rid of them.

In Ohio, one apartment complex owner spent more than US$280,000 (S$376,000) in an attempt to destroy the pests. Another hired an unlicensed pesticide applicator, who saturated the inside of the apartment complex with a pesticide, resulting in tenants being treated at a hospital for chemical exposure, according to the Washington Post.

Mr Ceglowski reckons that the big 'ick' factor is because 'they are solely focused on humans, and they get you when you are most vulnerable - asleep in bed'.

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