Bed Bug Bugaboo

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New Yorkers don’t scare easily. They are blasé about crime, absurdly aggressive behind the wheel, and generally indifferent to even the biggest rats. Even vampires don’t inspire fear. I once saw a pair on the N train in Queens, and no one (but me) batted an eyelash. Blood sucking insects, however, are an entirely different matter. Bed bugs will strike terror in the heart of even the most stalwart New Yorker.

New York City is on the front lines of the war against bed bugs. And its inhabitants are in the grip of full-on bed bug paranoia. Local lore has it that many New York movie theaters are infested. So one of my friends now refuses to see films within the city limits. When her husband returns from the cinema, she forces him to strip down at the door. His clothes go immediately into a plastic bag and then into the washer. Full cycle. Extra hot.

My landlords are equally paranoid. When my husband and I bought a new mattress, we set our old one on the curb. Later that day, the phone rang. “I see you are throwing out your mattress,” our landlord said. Awkward pause. “Are you sure the city will pick it up? Oh, and by the way, do you have bed bugs?”

Neither am I immune to the bed bug mania sweeping the city. After waking up with a couple of bites on my calf, I became convinced we had a incipient infestation. I combed the edges of the bed and the baseboards with a flashlight looking for telltale sign — bugs, exoskeletons, feces, or the red blood spots the bugs leave behind when they feast. My husband, who hadn’t been bit, thought I might be imagining the whole thing. I forced him to sleep on my side of the bed for almost a week. When neither of us received a single bite, I had to admit that I may have overreacted.

Terror over bed bugs can lead people to desperate acts. According to an article in the September 23 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, bed bug-related insecticide use has been linked to 111 illnesses in the past seven years. Not surprisingly, more than half those reports — 58% — came from New York. But the bed bug boogeyman has made stops in other states as well. One woman, 65-year-old Lilah Gray of North Carolina, actually died as a result of her husband’s efforts to rid their home of bed bugs with a veritable cocktail of toxins. Here’s the New York Times’ version of the story:

When Lilah Gray started getting bitten by bedbugs, all she could think of was getting rid of them. Her husband sprayed and saturated their double-wide trailer home in Rocky Mount, N.C., with pesticides. But convinced that she could still feel the bugs crawling on her, Ms. Gray soaked a napkin with Hot Shot Bedbug and Flea Killer and applied it directly to her chest, then soaked her hair in pesticide and put a plastic bag over it.

Within a few days, Ms. Gray, 65, who had a history of breathing problems, was hospitalized and breathing with the aid of a ventilator. She died on May 26, 2010, of respiratory failure, which, a federal official said Thursday, is believed to have been exacerbated by high doses of pesticides.

This is an extreme case, but it illustrates how powerful the urge to fight bed bugs can be. People are willing to employ a sometimes toxic arsenal in their desperation to wipe out the pests. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, however, chemicals alone rarely do the job. What does work? A comprehensive strategy. That might include heat — bed bugs can’t survive at temperatures above 113 degrees Fahrenheit — or bed covers that trap bed bugs inside. Bed bugs can also be vacuumed up, but their sticky eggs are harder to dislodge. And then there’s the good old-fashioned method of removing them by hand, “pressing down on them with the sticky side of any commercially available tape, hand-picking them, or brushing them directly into a container of rubbing alcohol or soapy water,” according to a technical guide put together by the Armed Forces Pest Management Board.

Knowing how to rid a home of bed bugs is useful, but I’d prefer to avoid getting them in the first place, preferably without resorting to crazy measures like laundering all of my clothes every time I walk in the door. What I really want to find is a risk assessment tool. Given that I live in a hotbed of bed bug activity, how likely am I to end up with an infestation? I went on the internet to find out. Two hours later I emerged from the wormhole, rich in knowledge, but still unable to assess my own risk. Here’s what I did learn:

1. Living in an apartment building, especially a big one, is dangerous. You may be careful, but your neighbors won’t necessarily be. For all the obsessive-compulsives out there, here are some recommendations to keep your apartment safe, including cutting back on “intra-building socializing.”

2. Bed bugs can live a long time, up to a year even without feeding. That means that if a single female bug hitches a ride to my apartment on the cuff of my jeans, she can wait patiently for me to bring her a mate without worrying too much about the ticking of her biological clock. (And here’s a fascinating/horrifying bit of bed bug biology. Males practice something called ‘traumatic insemination‘, which means they lance the female’s belly with their boy parts and ejaculate into her abdomen.)

3. According to The Bedbug Registry, a clearinghouse for bed bug sightings from all over the country, bed bugs have been reported in several apartment buildings near my home. A computer programmer named Maciej Ceglowski launched the site after getting bit in 2006 at a San Fransisco hotel. Ceglowski can’t verify that the reports are true, but he turns the reports into maps, which are useful. My neighbors have apparently submitted dozens of reports. Here’s an excerpt from one: “I was forced to throw out a lot of furniture, including my bed, washed EVERYTHING, and had to undergo 2 bed bug treatments. Although it’s better now, I’ve spent a lot of money to replace furniture in the home. Between the bed bugs & rodents in this building (the monthly exterminator is a complete joke, and these mice are proof of it), I’m not too happy, and looking to move once my lease is up.”

Excuse me. I just remembered I have clothes that need to be laundered.

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Bed Bug Resources:

CDC bed bug site

EPA bed bug site

The Bedbug Registry

Great technical guide from the Armed Forces Pest Management Board (PDF)

Purdue University

Image credit: Both from Wikimedia Commons

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7 thoughts on “Bed Bug Bugaboo

  1. Ugh, I’m afraid to look at that registry thingy. Yesterday I was walking down my Brooklyn block and saw that my neighbors had put their couch and chair on the curb. I IMMEDIATELY ran to the other side of the street, utterly convinced that bed bugs had already jumped from the couch to my hair.

  2. Cassandra —
    Thanks for that nice humanistic interpretation of a scientific finding. And what clever deductive methods those archeologists used! Some time ago one of you wrote a post on why ancient Europeans touch our imaginsations so much more than American First Peoples. My immediate reaction to that question was, “Because we have so much more cultural information about them, so much more that we can identify with, so much more that shows that they were like us.” This latest finding is a perfect example — what could bring long-dead people to life for us more effectively than evidence that they cared about and educated their children?

  3. I’m not trying to defend bedbugs–far from it–but I don’t understand the hysteria. They don’t spread disease and getting bitten doesn’t hurt. (The bitten area does itch afterward for some people, but doesn’t for others.)

    In short, getting bitten by a bedbug is no more inconvenient than getting bitten by a mosquito, except it’s safer because bedbugs don’t carry disease.

    If my house had bedbugs of course I would try to get rid of them, but I wouldn’t freak out. I would continue to sleep in my bed even knowing they were there as I gradually tried to get rid of them.

  4. bitguru – It’s the ‘ick’ factor. I don’t like the idea of bugs feeding on me while I sleep. Why do I find bed bugs more disturbing than mosquitoes? Perhaps because bed bugs don’t just feed on you, they live with you. They infest your stuff. They hide in your mattress and come out at night to suck your blood. Ewwww. Gross.

  5. But so do fleas, and yet when a pet gets fleas we buy it a collar and hope they go away, we don’t exterminate the pet and throw out everything it ever slept on. Fleas are of course easier to kill, but the disparity still strikes me as massively disproportionate.

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