— Forget about fictional, glitter-skinned teen vampires. You’re far more likely to have your blood sucked by bed bugs.
The tiny, sneaky insects are spreading so rapidly across the United States that almost no region or area is unbitten, a new survey suggests. Calls to exterminators nationwide about bed bugs are up 57 percent nationwide in the last five years, according to a new survey by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky. More than 95 percent of 519 U.S. exterminators participating in the survey reported finding at least one bed bug infestation in the past year.
“Most cities have bed bug problems today,” says Michael F. Potter, University of Kentucky professor of entomology and one of the co-authors of the study. "Any place you have a lot of people, or a lot of movement of people, you have bed bugs."
The study, the first comprehensive industry report specifically on bed bugs, supports findings cited in Congress’ “Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite Act of 2009” that bed bug populations in the U.S. have increased by 500 percent in the past few years.
The number of exterminators reporting doing over 100 bed bug jobs a year increased more than three-fold, from 6 percent in 2008 to 20 percent just two years later, the new survey found. Seven percent reported doing more than 500 bed bug jobs in the past year.
Turning up in surprising places
Increased travel, immigration and resistance to available insecticides are often blamed for the onslaught, although some experts also point to bans on more potent insecticides due to environmental concerns.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency denied a request by the state of Ohio to kill bed bugs with propoxur, an agricultural and industrial pesticide, citing risks of exposure to children. There were about 4,000 reports of bed bugs in Ohio in 2009, up from zero just a few years ago.
Despite several widely reported closures of retail stores and office buildings in New York City, infestations are still far more common in apartments and condominiums, single-family homes and hotels and motels. Yet they're also turning up in some surprising places, such as public transit, laundromats and movie theaters.
The real culprits behind the bed bug march across the U.S. are the high cost of eradication, along with lack of awareness, according to Richard Cooper, an entomologist who serves on the New York City bed bug Advisory Board and is vice president of Bed Bug Central, a company that provides educational resources to the public.
“There are still an amazing number of people that think bed bugs are some kind of folklore,” he says. “Or, if they do know about them, they think it’s due to poor hygiene, or it’s a problem that only affects the lower classes.”
In fact, prior to 2006, bed bugs were mostly found in upper end hotels in business and leisure travel destinations such as New York, Boston, Orlando and San Francisco, Cooper says.
Hidden, until it's too late
From there the stealthy bugs took hold and spread. Bed bugs don’t live on people, but they can hitchhike around in suitcases, purses, backpacks and computer bags. Because they hide during the day and feed on you painlessly while you sleep, they are very difficult to detect.
In addition, it takes about a week before an allergic reaction to the bites appears, so it can be hard to know exactly where the encounter took place. Roughly 30 percent of people living with infestations don’t develop an allergic reaction until being attacked multiple times, researcher Potter says. And since people simply aren't expecting them outside urban areas, it can take while to identify bedbugs as the cause.
That gives the pesky insects a three- to four-month head start on any efforts to control them, a significant lead for critters who lay lots of eggs and whose eggs hatch in about two weeks.
Getting rid of bed bugs is difficult even for professionals, who rate them far more difficult to deal with than ants, termites or cockroaches. Effective treatments are available, but they're expensive and time-consuming. A thorough inspection to detect bedbugs can involve specially trained dogs, followed by an application of pesticide and then a heat or cold treatment to kill eggs, which no chemical can currently do. The cost can be anywhere from $800 to $1,200 or more for a one-bedroom apartment, a steep price tag in the midst of a tough economy.
The result, says Cooper, is that bed bugs are “rapidly reservoiring” in lower-income communities.
“It’s bad news for the country,” he says.
'Brink of sanity'
So far, there is no concerted government effort to control the pests. Some cities, such as San Francisco, have put landlord education programs in place and many others have formed committees.
Since bed bugs are not seen as disease vectors, the Centers for Disease Control has declined to jump into the fray, although some experts feel they should.
“The biggest factor is mental health,” says Missy Henrikson, vice president of public affairs for National Pest Management Association and a co-author of the report, “They are so difficult to get rid of that it creates a real fear factor. People experience excessive worry. It drives them to the brink of sanity.”