Thursday, September 22, 2011

Preventing and Dealing With Bed Bugs

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This is an update from an earlier article.

About 5 years ago I wrote an article about a relatively new but spreading problem: bed bugs. Since I wrote that the problem has gotten bad enough that it has sparked a whole industry of detection and extermination of bed bugs and has led to hundreds of articles all over the mainstream media reporting on this growing problem. But this has led to misunderstandings and some shady businesses as well. This article is designed to help you avoid bedbugs if possible and get rid of them if you do get them. The problems continues to get worse. Every week I see mattresses wrapped in plastic laid out (unnecessarily!) on the street to be discarded, probably due to a bed bug scare or infestation.

Last summer the building I live in had a bed bug scare. That event did include one apartment with a real infestation, but probably not more than that. Turns out only one apartment ever had them, but had the building's managing board not acted rapidly it would have spread. As it was the managing board spent tens of thousands of dollars to pinpoint possibly affected apartments and proactively treat them. During that time we became quite informed about the pests. More recently we had another scare. That turned out to be nothing. But it reinforced our knowledge of the issue.

The bad news is the problem continues to spread and a lot of what is being done about it is the wrong approach. The good news is there are some very simple things you can do that will prevent them from coming into your living space.

From the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene website:

Bed bugs are small insects that feed on the blood of mammals and birds. Adult bed bugs are oval, wingless and rusty red colored, and have flat bodies, antennae and small eyes. They are visible to the naked eye, but often hide in cracks and crevices. When bed bugs feed, their bodies swell and become a brighter red. In homes, bed bugs feed primarily on the blood of humans, usually at night when people are sleeping...

Typically, the bite is painless and rarely awakens a sleeping person. However, it can produce large, itchy welts on the skin. Welts from bed bug bites do not have a red spot in the center--those welts are more characteristic of flea bites...

Although bed bugs may be a nuisance to people, they are not known to spread disease.

That is also good news. Bed bugs are not disease vectors like mosquitoes. They are just irritating in the extreme...and they can really infest an apartment if not properly addressed.

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The problem first became wide spread in NYC in 2005...after a lull of about 60 years where there were few or no reportings of bed bugs in NYC, one of the current epicenters. Since then the epidemic has taken off. Now I have heard from one professional that one out of every eleven buildings in NYC has bed bugs. Let me emphasize that I was sounding the alarm early on this one!

Why the sudden epidemic? There are several possible reasons. Some have tried to blame it on immigrants. That is almost certainly not true since here in NYC we have a pretty constant influx of immigrants and the influx of bed bugs has never correlated with influx of immigrants. If this was going to be a major source of spread, there would not have been a 60 year lull. NYC has always been a major immigrant hub (I know my ancestors came through here) but the upswing in bed bugs seems to have only started around 2005 for NYC. But elsewhere in the country the upswing started more like 2000, according to a an article from Time Magazine back when I first looked into this.

One aspect of the sudden rise of the bed bugs is simple evolution. I have often reported on how the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, particularly in animal feed, has led to a huge emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. This has been a huge problem and is one reason why I now only buy meat and chicken raised without antibiotics. Well the same thing happens with insects. Overuse and misuse of pesticides in America has led to bed bugs that are resistant to most pesticides. For the record, same goes with lice. Those horribly toxic shampoos are mostly useless by now because the lice have evolved resistance against them. And many treatments for bed bugs are ineffective for the same reason.

Another aspect that I suspect is going on is global warming. Simple fact is that most insects prefer warmer temperatures. I want to emphasize that this is speculation. The evolution of pesticide resistance is not speculative. But global warming HAS been shown to be the cause for the spread of many pests, and it almost certainly will eventually be shown to play a role for many more. So I am betting that rising temperatures have helped the bed bug infestation spread.

So what can you do? I'm going to work backwards, from treatment to detection to prevention. Why? Because if I give you an idea about how awful the treatment and expensive and potentially inaccurate the detection, prevention will sound much better to you. And honestly the more we all work to keep these things under control the more likely it will be we can limit them. Remember that if your neighbors get them, you will probably get them too if you aren't actively trying to prevent them.

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There seem to be three main treatments. All three are horrible to go through and hugely expensive. They are basically heating, freezing, and poisoning. I guess there is a fourth which you can use for any items that can't stand up to the other treatments: bag everything for 2 years. That is about how long it takes to kill bed bugs by starvation. I did notice that the more convinced exterminators were that we didn't actually have them, the more they backed off that number. Eventually they seemed to settle on 6 months. But there has been research that showed even after a year sealed in a bag with no food or water, the researchers could still find bed bugs not just living, but actually reproducing! They are tough SOBs. So sealing them off requires two years to be sure.

Also, I notice many homes in NYC with mattresses thrown out. I suspect this sudden increase in mattresses being thrown out is due to bed bugs. But there is no need to throw out a mattress because mattress covers will seal them in, away from you, until they die. Mattress covers are necessary anyway (see below) so just put them on and keep the mattress. It saves money and keeps them from spreading to other parts of the neighborhood.

Treatment usually involves bagging almost everything you own for months to years, punching about 1 inch diameter holes in many of your walls, then either getting poison all over everything including inside your walls (and it takes WEEKS to fully clean up) or raising the temperature in the whole apartment above what they can tolerate or lowering the temperature to below what they can tolerate. All of these horribly inconvenient, expensive and disruptive. Best to avoid them!


Detection has issues as well. Usually what is first obvious is the itching from the bites. Then people will notice the bugs' very dark droppings (basically like dried up flakes of blood...yeah...your blood if you've got itching bites). By the time you are noticing them, it is likely that you have a pretty bad infestation. People won't always see them because they mostly come out at night, but a really bad infestation they will be everywhere, day and night.

There are two expert methods of identifying them: trained people and trained dogs. The dogs have been getting a lot of press these days, and they CAN be very effective. The dog's nose is an amazing thing, and they really can be trained to sniff out anything and tell you about it. There are bomb sniffing dogs, drug sniffing dogs, and now bed bug sniffing dogs. The flaws are that they are extremely expensive and, though potentially extremely accurate, are in practice sometimes very inaccurate. Dogs basically want food and attention. They don't care about accuracy...they just want to be rewarded, so they are easily distracted. We are pretty sure that our building had many false alarms because of a dog. I am not saying it is a scam or the dog was poorly trained. It just has a built in inaccuracy which has to be kept in mind.

When my building had a second scare I had the chance to better understand a good vs. bad use of a bed bug sniffing dog. I bet most of these dogs are almost as well trained as bomb or drug sniffing dogs, so have a lot of potential. But the handlers are also critical. The first time I personally witnessed a bed bug sniffing dog and handler team doing its thing I felt both dog and handler were performing for an audience and I felt they were giving false positive readings because of it.

This is what I saw. The first year a dog and handler came by, both seemed to be performing for an audience, and they let as many people as were available watch. It was a staged show and I was not comfortable with it. In the end I feel like they drummed up business for themselves and did so based on dubious data.

The second year we had an issue a different dog and different handler came through. This time he seemed MUCH more professional and he limited the number of people around the dog to limit distractions. He did not detect bed bugs in our building.

Bottom line is this: the dogs are potentially really accurate, but the handlers are variable, even from the same company. My advice is a.) get an inspection from a different company than you will hire to deal with any infestation and make that clear from the start. Otherwise the company you hire to detect a problem will be the same company that handles the problem, creating a conflict of interest. And b.) watch the dog and handler...if they seem to be playing to a large audience there is a problem. If they seem to be open to one person observing but focused on keeping the dog from being distracted, then they are more trustworthy. Beware of show offs, whether dog or handler.

What about human detection? People will miss the very beginning of an infestation that a dog could catch, but they do the inspection in a smarter manner and so can be more accurate overall once an infestation has gotten going beyond the first stages. Dogs are potentially more accurate but sometimes people do the inspection in a smarter way. So it's a toss up which to hire.

But the bottom line is if either a dog or a person with training in detection tells you you have them, it is really hard not to say yes to the treatment because far, far better safe than sorry. The earlier you catch it the easier it is to stop, so if you want to wait and see if the dog or person is right, you may find yourself with an out of control infestation which will be even harder and more expensive to deal with.


Oh, and is now a good time to mention bed bugs are ALL OVER THE CITY? One out of every 11 apartment units in NYC. Hotels. In the UN building. In places of work. In movie theaters. The good news is that they don't really move around so much except at night, so they aren't jumping from person to person much. The main vector is bringing into your apartment items that have already got them living inside, books, etc. But one exterminator I talked to believed people's shoes are a major vector. So they aren't spread so much directly from one person to another but by bringing infested things into your building.

So what can you do to prevent them from coming into your living space?

First be really, really careful scrounging anything, particularly furniture. Now I have scrounged a lot of stuff in my time...still do from time to time, but now I am highly careful. If a book has bed bugs, it is pretty easy to detect...if you look. You will see the black specs that are their droppings. Furniture can be harder, but there are treatments if you really want to bring a scrounged piece of furniture into your apartment. Heating (if you can) or diatomaceaous earth (see below). But my wife figures the safest is to not scrounge at all.

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Mattresses and pillows can be sealed up. This costs some money, but if you get good mattress and pillow covers, even if you have an infested mattress or bed you can just leave it in the cover and they will eventually die and you keep the bed from being their favorite habitat. These covers are the most recommended action you can take. When exterminators heard we already had them, they were 90% sure we couldn't have a problem. So covering your mattresses and pillows with high end versions of these covers will really protect you. This is a cost you probably don't want to skimp on.

But shoes are an issue as well. One exterminator said you should always take your shoes off when you come in and if possible place them in a container with diatomaceous earth (again...see below). He believes that (scrounging an infested bed aside) this would prevent almost all spread of bed bugs. Not sure if that is true, but it certainly would help.

Now we come to some amazing stuff that I was dubious about but have seen in action. Diatoms are tiny animals that live in the ocean and create a silica shell. These shells are beautiful (if you have a microscope to look at them with), elaborate, and very sharp. These animals die, fall to the bottom of the sea, and form thick beds of diatom skeletons. When plate tectonics (earthquakes and continental drift) brings these deposits up above sea level, they can be mined. These deposits of tiny silica skeletons of long dead diatoms is called diatomaceous earth. It is a white powder of very tiny sharp skeletons. To us the sharpness, at worst, will irritate our skin a bit. Can't really harm us. But to something small like an insect, it is like the death of a thousand cuts. The coating around an insect that helps keep in moisture gets pierced and they dry out and die.

You can get diatomaceous earth online or in a hardware store. It isn't that expensive. If you even get so-called "food grade" it is considered so completely harmless that you can eat it if you want...though there is no reason you would and I suspect it would kind of irritate your digestive system. But it can be used in a kitchen.

We got diatomaceous earth and I basically spread it around the entire perimeter of every room in our apartment, making sure to get it into every crevice. The problem is this stuff gets everywhere. I found it irritating to my lungs at first, but once most of it settled and we vacuumed up anything not around the edges of a room (this is also good for making sure your vacuum isn't infested!) that went away. For months afterwards the diatomaceous earth was still visible in the crevices and corners around many of the rooms but isn't a problem.

And the effectiveness? Within one day of spreading it around every single crawling insect, including ants, confused flour beetles, and cockroaches, just disappeared. And they didn't come back for about a year.

This year we started seeing some ants again and I spread diatomaceous earth next to the sliding glass door and our basement windows. And again all crawling insects just disappeared. I still see plenty of ants outside, but none have come inside. And no cockroaches for a year now! In NYC...almost unheard of.

So if most of NYC put their mattresses and pillows into bed bug covers, took off their shoes and put them in containers of diatomaceous earth when they got home, and spread diatomaceous earth around the edges of their apartment, I am betting they would find many pests would be greatly reduced from their apartments. Bed bugs, ants and flour beetles are hard to get rid of. Diatomaceous earth does it. And it isn't the kind of thing that is easy to evolve a resistance to so it won't lose its effectiveness over the years.

So there you go. Together we can all fight bed bugs. Hope this helps!

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