PORTLAND, Ore. – They’re bloodthirsty, nocturnal and easy to bring home.
“I saw one on my bed, but I didn't know what it was,” said Rabia Yeaman.
Then came the bites, two or three in a row on her arm, that Yeaman noticed mid-morning. She said they were swollen bumps, like a mosquito bite.
“It was maybe a couple of weeks later, somebody at work mentioned kind of jokingly, 'Maybe you had bed bugs?' And I had to ask, 'What is that?',” she said.
Yeaman didn’t think bed bugs really existed. She thought they were just part of a children’s nursery rhyme. However, an Internet search confirmed the red flat insect she had seen on the bed inside her condo was a bed bug. The pests had come into her living space through a neighboring unit. Her neighbor had identified a bed bug problem months before, but failed to disclose it to fellow tenants.
Pest control managers in the Portland metropolitan area say the bed bug problem is exploding in our region. Inquiries about bed bugs are up more than 50 percent from a couple of years ago. And the infestations are occurring in a variety of places – high-end hotels, suburban homes, college dorms, apartments, even hospitals.
The exact reason for a bed bug resurgence is unclear, but Larry Durant of Target Specialty Products, says the local trend reflects a worldwide increase in activity. He cites the rise in international travel, lack of public awareness, and changes in pest control management as factors.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the pesticide DDT was widely used to rid of household pests. It was then eliminated from use due to concerns about its effects on the environment and health. Dr. Michael Potter, a leading entomologist who specializes in bed bugs says the insect has developed resistance to most insecticides.
“Bed bugs are hitchhikers,” said Robert McMaster of Halt Pest Control in Beaverton. He cites the example of someone who’s gone to Europe, stayed in a hotel, and brought bed bugs back in suitcase. That person carries them into their house, then carries the pest to work.
“That’s our next fear factor. There are some places we know, like office settings, that are going to have problems with these. It’s just spreading rapidly,” he said.
Part of the problem is the time it takes to detect an infestation. Durant says a common lag-time is two to three months before bed bugs are actually discovered. Bed bugs are adept at hiding in narrow spaces, in the seams of mattresses, behind headboards, and in the cracks of other furniture.
The biology of bed bugs also enables them to go undetected. They are most active between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., and inject an anesthetic into you as they bite, numbing you to the pain. They can drink up to three times their weight in your blood. Further, most people have no noticeable reaction to the bites.
In the worst of cases, a victim can be bitten hundreds of times in one night and have to go the hospital because they’ve lost so much blood. Eunice Juarez, who was on vacation in California with her two sons in 2006, woke up in her Marriott hotel room with her body covered with bites – 650 in all. She’s suing the global hotel chain.
Public housing managers in Portland are aware of the issue. One took us inside a downtown subsidized housing facility to show us a unit that had been gutted after a bed bug infestation.
The carpeting, furniture, wood shelving and pantries were removed because the problem ran so deep, with a total damage cost estimated at more than $5,000. Black spots along the baseboard mark the high population areas where bed bugs had defecated blood.
Live bed bugs were still present as KATU inspected the room.
In Multnomah County, you can get a positive identification of a bed bug by using a sealable vial, small container or plastic bag to capture bugs noticed near your sleeping areas. The sample can be sent to the Multnomah County Vector and Nuisance Control, or be delivered directly to the agency’s office at 5235 N. Columbia Blvd., Portland OR 97236. More information here.
What can you do?
Durant, who oversees the Portland metro area for Target Specialty Products, said bed bugs are not caused by poor sanitation or one’s social status, and infestations must be introduced by bringing in an item that has bugs or eggs associated with it. Still, he said, “poor sanitation, particularly clutter, can make it more difficult to control or eliminate a bed bug infestation.”
Take special precautions when you travel, especially if your trip includes a hotel stay. One pest control employee said her travel protocol involves immediately placing her zipped suitcase in the bathtub when she arrives in a hotel/motel room, since bed bugs are incapable of crawling across or up slick metal.
She inspects behind the headboard, behind the nightstands, and if possible behind all wooden pieces of furniture – areas where bed bugs like to hide. She also lifts the covers of the bed and checks the seams of the mattress and underneath it, as well as the box spring for signs of bugs or for the black spotting indicating the presence of the bugs’ defecation of blood.
Once the room has passed these steps, the careful traveler places her suitcase on a metal cot, and never unpacks the clothing into the drawers of the hotel’s dresser, as bed bugs can easily hide in the cracks of the furniture. She keeps her suitcase zipped tightly when it’s not in use, and places her shoes on the counters or tables, not on the floor.
Rabia Yeaman, who’s now a participant on the relatively new bed bug task force committee in Multnomah County, said given her experiences and the reports of bed bugs on subways in New York, she avoids sitting when she takes public transportation. She said people need to also think about bed bugs when bring home furniture, clothing or other household items from secondhand stores, thrift shops and garage sales.
“I cringe when I see sofas left out on sidewalks with a sign that says ‘free,’ because you never know exactly why the previous owner was getting rid of it,” said Yeaman.
Getting rid of bed bugs isn’t easy. Most of the time, it involves several steps including vacuuming, chemical treatment, steam cleaning, and hot laundering.
Pest control companies use a specially designed vacuum that sucks up bed bugs. The insects die at 115 degrees for an extended period so a hot wash and hot dry of all infested clothing is required.
Thermal treatment, which includes heat guns, warms up your home and the items in it up to 140 degrees for several hours. And chemical applications with insecticides have to be repeated after several weeks to catch hatching eggs, which can be no larger than a grain of sand.
McMaster says the current chemistry of insecticides is not as effective as he would like to see. The Environmental Protection Agency has held hearings on loosening standards on materials pest control companies can use. In 2009, it held a national bed bug summit to address the growing problem across America.
Durant says managers of apartments and other multi-dwelling facilities should avoid moving tenants to another room, and take caution in throwing out items. An Oregon-based company, Cimex Science, sells a suitcase-like device that serves as an early warning system and a follow-up tool to evaluate post-treatment populations. It emits CO2, heat and synthetic attractant chemistry to draw in bed bugs and capture them in a trap.
Disposing of a bed-bug infested mattress is ideal, but encasements specially made to trap the insects can be more cost-effective, after the mattress has been treated to kill the live bugs.
Better incident reporting needed
Bed bugs are not listed as a vector in Oregon, and there is no mandatory reporting system for bed bug infestations. A vector is any organism capable of transmitting disease, such as fleas, ticks, mosquitoes and rodents.
They are capable of carrying human pathogens, but they’ve been proven to transmit disease between humans. If bed bugs were deemed a vector, landlord and tenant laws could be rewritten to help landlords treat units effectively and help tenants comply with treatment requirements.
An unofficial reporting site is bedbugregistry.com, a Web site allowing people to anonymously post information about infestations in various cities. However, the reports are not verified, and could be the result of disgruntled tenants posting negative comments about a facility.
Those familiar with bed bugs said dealing with infestation can mess with people’s sense of well-being. “The safest place you can be is in your bed, so it can be psychologically devastating when these insects come and bite. We get calls from people all the time who are breaking down and crying,” said Robert McMaster.
Yeaman wants to educate others about bed bugs. She said it was one of the most distressing things she’s ever dealt with in her life, culminating in a lot of sleepless nights.
“During the infestation I probably averaged 3.5 hours of sleep," Yeaman said, "because I would go to bed thinking about it, knowing – not just wondering – but knowing they’re going to come.”