No doubt you've seen the news stories in recent years of bedbugs popping up in Manhattan, from the Big Apple's most posh hotels to trendsetting stores such as Victoria's Secret and Hollister.
Maybe you’ve heard about Illinois’s or Ohio’s problems with the incessant, itch-inducing insects and thanked the heavens you live hundreds of miles away in the great Pacific Northwest.
Be forewarned: you are safe no more. Those flat, oval-shaped insects that feed on human blood are here.
Though they aren’t as widespread as in other parts of the country, exterminators say the number of bedbug infestations is multiplying in the South Sound.
“It has definitely spread to our area. We’re getting more and more calls about it,” said Erik Hodson, general manager of Whitworth Pest Solutions in Puyallup.
Requests to tackle the pests started trickling in to Whitworth around 2008 and have now grown to an average of one case a week in Pierce and King counties. That’s not the way it used to be.
“I was out in the field (on extermination jobs) every day from 1994 to 2006 ... I never did a single bedbug job during that time,” Hodson said.
Eden Advanced Pest Technologies, based in Olympia, is seeing an even bigger uptick. “We were doing (bedbug) jobs occasionally three years ago,” said company president Jack Marlowe. By last year, the demand for bedbug extermination had grown so high, Eden formed three, three-person teams to eradicate the pests in houses, hospitals, offices and wherever else they descend.
Eden, which works throughout Western Washington south to Portland, estimates last year’s bedbug business quadrupled from the previous year. Most of the cases are in Seattle and Portland, but the company has had bedbug jobs in Pierce and Thurston counties.
“Thurston County hasn’t yet had that many. It’s been maybe a tenth of the volume in Seattle or Portland,” Marlowe said. But, he added, “It’s just a matter of time before it gets to Olympia.”
The state Health Department investigates complaints about bedbugs in motels and hotels, but doesn’t track reports of bedbugs in homes. Yet public health entomologist Liz Dykstra believes the incidence of bedbugs is increasing in Washington state, based on the number of inquiries from the public and from talking with pest exterminators, such as Marlowe. “Those guys are on the front lines,” said Dykstra, who’s with the state Health Department.
The exterminators do battle with members of the “cimicidae” family. The bedbugs bite people to feed on their blood. The bites don’t cause disease, but can become itchy and swell into welts.
As their nickname implies, bedbugs often live in mattress seams and tufts. Like bloodthirsty vampires, they typically come out to feed at night when people are asleep.
They can invade the cleanest, high-end homes along with low-rent apartments.
“We did a big, 4,000- or 5,000-square-foot house in King County worth a couple million dollars,” recalled Hodson. “We speculate the reason they got it, their kid was going to college and probably picked it up in the dorm. He came back to visit and spread it.”
Bedbugs have long tormented mankind, but became a stranger to American domiciles and workplaces starting in the 1960s, thanks to the use of DDT and other pesticides. It’s believed they’ve made a resurgence in recent years due to the banning of effective pesticides and the insects’ growing resistance to other pesticides. At the same time, the increase in international travel gives foreign bedbugs more opportunity to emigrate here.
One of Eden’s customers is Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland. University officials learned the campus had a problem with the insects when a handful of students reported getting bitten at various times last fall.
The little buggers had struck six dorm rooms, affecting 10 student residents, said Rebecca Rumpza, facilities coordinator for residential life at PLU. It turned out the bugs had several routes of entry: used furniture and used clothing purchased from second-hand stores, and belongings that traveled internationally with a student.
It wasn’t a big outbreak and Eden eliminated the intruders, but it was a new experience for the university, Rumpza said. The dorms had never had bedbugs in at least 18 years.
“We’ve been so lucky to get right on it,” she said. “The students have been great to work with. It’s been minimal disruptions.”
People can try to eliminate bedbugs themselves, but it’s a huge undertaking that involves vacuuming mattresses, other furnishings and wall crevices; removing clutter; putting all clothes through the dryer on high heat or dry cleaning them. And that’s just for starters.
Some people who tackle the task run into trouble. Based on anecdotal evidence, Joanne Prado, with the state Health Department, believes more people are getting sick in Washington state from incorrectly using pesticides to battle bedbugs. She’s in the process of analyzing data to compare the number of such illnesses over time, but, she said, other states have already identified the trend.
“Illnesses have been fairly lower in severity in general, but can be quite distressing,” said Prado, with the department’s pesticide illness group. “We’ve seen a few moderate cases, where they go to the emergency room. They seem to be on the upswing.”
For instance, some people let off pesticide foggers in their home, then spray their skin with mosquito repellents containing the pesticide DEET. Neither work against bedbugs, she said.
“If you used a high-percentage DEET product on little kids’ skin, put them under the covers for eight hours, there’s increased dermal absorption. They can get very sick.”
Public health experts say people with big infestations should consider hiring a pest firm. “They’re very challenging to deal with,” said Sammy Berg, senior environmental health specialist with Thurston County Public Health and Social Services Department.
The cost of hiring an exterminator varies with the severity of the infestation and the number of visits required. At Whitworth, residential bedbug jobs typically start with a $150 inspection; treatment can cost as much as $1,000 to $2,000, Hodson said. At Eden, residential treatment averages $1,200 to $1,800, though it can go higher in particularly bad cases, Marlowe said.
The first task is finding the bugs’ hiding spots. About 70 percent of the time, Hodson said, they’re around the bed in the box spring, the mattress, the bed frame, the night stand or drawers. Their telltale signature: the insects’ fecal stains appearing as tiny brown spots on sheets or the mattress.
But the bed isn’t their only hangout.
Hodson’s crew has found them in appliances, electronics, clocks, keyboards, sofas, recliners, nail holes and baseboards, where they hide out till it’s time to eat. They hitch rides on wheelchairs and hop off at hospitals, Marlowe said.
“In the pest control community, the consensus is that bed bugs are the most difficult pests to control,” according to Whitworth’s web site, which has information on termites, rats, ants and the other critters the company exterminates.
People might not notice the bug’s bites until well into an infestation. “In 90 days the population explodes to thousands,” Marlowe said. “We’re called into some situations, and the number we find is unbelievable. They may be all piled in the corner of a bunk bed.”
Depending on the infestation, treatment can include steam-treating mattresses and box springs and encasing them in impermeable covers; heavy-duty vacuuming to suck up the bugs and their sticky eggs; spot treatment with insecticides and dusting into wall crevices with diatomaceous earth, a natural compound that dries out the bugs.
Sometimes Eden uses special heaters that raise the heat in a room to 120 degrees for several hours, essentially cooking to death the bugs and their eggs.
Still, Marlowe says, no single method is 100 percent effective. Even with the heat, bedbugs could survive if hiding in wall voids that the heaters can’t reach. Most jobs involve a combination of tactics and follow-up visits to see if bugs remain. Sometimes Eden brings in a specially trained dog that can sniff out the pests.
Much of Eden’s work is helping institutions, such as college dorms, hospitals or military installations, create bedbug plans to prevent infestations and immediate steps to take if the insects show up.
It’s key to get the pests as soon as possible. People sometimes wait because they’re embarrassed. They shouldn’t be, Marlowe said.
“It’s not tied to sanitation or income level or ethnic background,” Marlowe said. “If you’re human, they want you.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694 firstname.lastname@example.org