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They're Creepy and They're Crawly

November 24, 2010 By:
Rachel Vigoda, JE Feature
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The vampire craze has gone one step too far. Blood-sucking bedbugs are back -- and in a big way.

"This is something that really hasn't been here for over 40 years, and now cases are doubling every month," says Mark Coopersmith, manager of Peerless Pest Control in Olney, a family business that opened in 1951. "It's already been stated that bedbugs will supersede roaches in the next two to three years."

Roaches can live for about a month without food. Bedbugs?

They can survive for up to a year. More than 75 percent of the U.S. pest-control companies that contributed to "Bugs Without Borders," a survey released over the summer by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky, said bedbugs are more difficult to control than roaches.

The survey also found that almost all the companies -- 95 percent -- were called in to tackle a bedbug infestation in the past year. Ten years ago, that figure was 25 percent.

It gets worse. In New York City, there were more than 4,000 confirmed infestations last year, compared to just 82 six years ago. Philadelphia is No. 2 on Terminix's list of most-infested cities, second only to the Big Apple.

And the good news?

"There is no good news," says Coppersmith. "Bedbugs will attack anybody and everything. And they're here to stay."

Bedbugs spread by hitching rides on clothes or shoes or in luggage or other bags, and they can show up anywhere their food source -- i.e., humans -- happen to live: apartment complexes, single-family houses, dorms, offices (including Bill Clinton's), schools, hotels, movie theaters and clothing stores.

The "bed" connection is that they're nocturnal, so they usually feast at night while we sleep.

The rise in infestations is likely due to a combination of increased travel, the bug's growing resistance to available pesticides and bans on more potent pesticides.

Lack of awareness and denial also play big roles. Even though bedbugs have absolutely nothing to do with housekeeping or cleanliness (though excessive clutter can make them harder to eradicate once they show up); no one wants to acknowledge that they could be next, and so don't take any action to prevent them.

The Need to Be Proactive
"Bedbug infestation is absolutely unnecessary in today's marketplace," says a Center City hotel manager who asked not to be identified, to avoid any perceived connection between his hotel and the creepy crawlies.

"You have to be proactive. But people sweep the problem under the rug, so now they still have a problem, it's just under a rug" -- in this case, literally.

At his hotel, trained "canine detectives" make regular rounds to sniff out any lurking bugs. The hotel also replaced its upholstered furniture with leather (harder for the bugs to permeate) and encased all mattresses in bedbug-proof covers.

Other anti-bed bug measures, for a hotel or home, include routinely inspecting headboards, mattresses and couches for the bugs themselves; their discarded exoskeletons; and any red (blood) and brown (feces) spots on or near bedding. You also must carefully check suitcases after a trip, as well as drying clothes and linens on high temperatures.

"We understand that no one is completely safe, but if people are more aware and don't ignore the issue, they can catch it before it turns into a major problem," according to the hotel manager.

"It's a hot topic right now. You turn on the 11 o'clock news and hear about bedbugs just before bed. And the thought of infestation is frightening," says Leiza Stanley, a family therapist and social worker at the Belmont Center for Comprehensive Treatment in Philadelphia.

"The anxiety feeds on itself -- worried thoughts lead to more worried thoughts," she adds.

Instead of dwelling endlessly on what you can't control, Stanley recommends using the fear of bedbugs the way fear was intended: as a handy survival mechanism.

"The thought -- 'bedbugs are scary, I'm at risk' -- is valid. The next step is: 'What can I do to protect myself as best I can, knowing some things are just out of my control?' " she says.

As for other emotions bedbugs can conjure up, like cringing embarrassment, the best thing to keep in mind is that if you do have bedbugs, you're definitely not alone.

"We're just not seeing the embarrassment that much anymore," says Coopersmith. "And that's because everybody else has them, too." 

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