Eintime Conversion for education and research 04-08-2008 @ 12:48:30
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Don't let the bedbugs bite' is advice tough to follow

By Donna Freydkin, USA TODAY

First come the bites, amazingly itchy, raised red welts that appear, literally, overnight. Then, you might notice scarlet spots on your sheets from smashed bugs or perhaps clusters of little black dots that you assume are dirt but are in fact constellations of fecal matter.

And one day, you might wake up in the wee hours of the morning, flip on the lights and find red bugs, slightly bigger than ticks, crawling on your sheets, pillows and legs.

PERSONAL ACCOUNT: USA TODAY reporter's reaction to the pests

Welcome to the most retro pest of the 21st century, the bedbug. The bugs, which were thought to be wiped out by powerful pesticides such as DDT 30 years ago, are back and infesting major urban areas, suburbia and the heartland.

"This insect is a cryptic, bloodsucking parasite that bites people at night while sleeping, and it's one tough critter," says Michael Potter, an entomology professor at the University of Kentucky. "History is repeating itself. They used to be extremely common in hospitals and movie theaters, and now, that's where you pick them up."

Debbie Wunder and her husband, Rusty Pistachio, picked up the insects from a hotel in Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles. They didn't realize until later that they were bringing them home to Manhattan. He was eaten up all over; she didn't get a single bite, which isn't unusual, experts say. Bugs often feast on one person and ignore another. She noticed red splotches on their sheets, from tiny bugs squashed during the night, but didn't know what they meant. When the bites got worse, she started doing her homework. One day she looked beneath the mattress, "and sure enough, we had filthy bedbugs."

YOUR STORY: If you've been bitten, tell us how you dealt with the bugs and where you picked them up

Wunder says she "totally freaked out. I felt dirty, itchy, disgusting and most of all, angry. My furious husband immediately exacted his revenge by smashing all the bugs we found with his fist.

"I picked up the phone and paid $200 to a hauling company to show up within the hour to remove our mattress, box spring and all the furniture in the immediate vicinity of our bed. I couldn't get our bed out of there fast enough."

Although concrete figures aren't available, it's safe to say bedbugs are present in every major city and in every state, says Jay Nixon, the president of American Pest Management, a pest control firm operating in the Washington, D.C., area.

Before 2000, "I could count on one hand how many calls I got about them," Nixon says. "Today, they're so common in many buildings, it's going to be assumed they come with the rent."

And experts say higher education isn't immune either: "Every major university in the U.S. has bedbugs in their housing, but they don't know it or don't want to admit it," Potter says.

The bedbug problem, says Michael Raupp, professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, "is across the board. … This is a general problem and is on the upswing in all of our states."

Bedbugs feast on blood, preferably human, but they're not known to spread any physical disease. They do foster a deep and unyielding sense of paranoia and panic.

Even if you exterminate them and they appear to be gone, they might be waiting to make their reappearance.

"They can live for up to a year without a meal. You can vacate, and these guys can be alive for up to a year," Raupp says. "You'll always have these lingering questions. It's a little like living with cockroaches, but these guys are living off you."

The key to fighting bedbugs, the experts say, is understanding why they're so hardy. They can burrow and survive in spaces the thickness of a credit card. And it's a common myth that they live only in mattresses and box springs. They thrive behind picture frames, in cracks and crevices on the floor and inside wooden hangers.

Once you pick them up in a hotel, a subway or a rental car and they invade your living space, it's difficult to get rid of them. They're becoming ever more resistant to the few sprays that are approved to fight them after DDT was banned in 1972.

Then, too, it's a different world today, Potter says. "In the 1930s and '40s when people got bitten, it was another one of life's annoyances. We're not accustomed to this type of thing anymore."

Pest control experts started noticing a renaissance in bedbugs in the late 1990s. They attribute the comeback to two major factors: an increase in cheap air travel to exotic locales where the pest was never eradicated in the first place and the elimination of "very residual long-lived pesticides that you could lay down along baseboards. As we started to phase out DDT and its relatives, we went to more short-lived chemicals. The suppression that was there by using the longer-lasting compounds is no longer there," Raupp says.

The worst thing about having bedbugs is never knowing when they're gone. There's no test, no trap and, usually, no peace of mind. Experts generally say that if you go for four months or more without being bitten, you're safe. But if you live in an apartment building and a neighbor has them, you're out of luck.

Probably, the bugs will be back because they travel vertically and laterally.

"There's no silver bullet waiting in the wings for bedbugs," Potter says.

Wunder, who now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, bought covers for her new mattress and box spring, washed or dry-cleaned all her clothing and says she's become a bedbug vigilante.

"I will never ever sleep in a hotel bed without doing a thorough check of the mattress and linens," she says. "Like the Great White song, we are once bitten, twice shy … and angry."

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