Revisting: Preventing and Dealing With Bed Bugs
The plague of bed bugs continues to spread in America, even though it is not THAT hard to prevent spread of these pests. But no one seems to be paying attention to the ways that bed bugs can be kept at bay. Every day I am seeing more and more mattresses, entire beds, and other furniture thrown away because of bed bugs. But people CAN limit their risk if they put their minds to it. With information you can save time, money and stress. But very few people are doing it.
All of America is at risk of bed bug infestations. Many very fancy hotels are already infested. Many homes are infested. But your risk can be reduced and there are many things you can do to limit your chances of getting these pests.
In 2006 I wrote an article about a relatively new but spreading problem: bed bugs. Since I wrote that article 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 sveral mattresses and couches wrapped in plastic laid out (unnecessarily!) on the street to be discarded, probably due to a bed bug scare or infestation. The last few weeks alone I saw some 20 mattresses as well as considerable amount of bedding and a couple of couches all tightly wrapped up and being needlessly thrown out. I assume most of these are due to bed bugs.
In 2010 the building I live in had a bed bug scare. It seemed at first as if several apartments were affected with possibly two separate initial infections (at opposite ends of the building). Turns out that probably 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. More recently an alert shareholder saw a single bed bug in their apartment. They caught it and put it in a bag so it could be identified. So far it seems like that is the only bed bug to make it in, but the building is spending hundreds of dollars to make sure.
The bad news is the problem continues to spread and a lot of what is being done about it is actually the wrong approach. For example, throwing away your mattress if it has bed bugs is unnecessary and it helps spread the problem because you have just put the bed bugs out on the street where they can get on people's shoes (including your own to re-infest your own home). The good news is there are some very simple things you can do that will prevent them from coming into your living space. Three relatively simple and inexpensive methods greatly reduce your chances of getting them: mattress covers, diatomaceous earth, and rubbing alcohol.
First, the problem...
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. But no one gets sick or dies from bed bugs.
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 apartment units 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. Blaming immigrants is just plain unfounded.
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 and abroad has led to bed bugs that are resistant to most pesticides. For the record, same goes with lice. Those horribly toxic shampoos used for lice are mostly useless by now because the lice have evolved resistance against them. The proper use of a lice comb and careful removal of eggs is the only truly effective way to remove lice. And many treatments for bed bugs are ineffective for the same reason. In fact, many scientists believe that over use of insecticides is exactly why we are having our current influx of bed bugs.
Another aspect that I suspect may be 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 pretty much established fact. 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 (diatomaceous earth is the best way to prevent spread from a neighbor!).
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 absolutely sure. One exterminator suggested adding moth balls to the bag you put things in can help speed up the process, but I have not confirmed that. Probably 6 months with mothballs in the bag is good enough, but not as certain as 2 years.
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. Mattress covers are cheaper than a new mattress!
Treatment usually involves bagging almost everything you own for months to years, punching 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 bed bugs can tolerate, or lowering the temperature in the whole apartment to below what they can tolerate. Only bathrooms and kitchens are largely left untouched (as long as you seal them off so the poison doesn't get in them). All of these treatments are horribly inconvenient, expensive and disruptive. Best to avoid them if you can by preventing bed bugs altogether!
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. The earlier you catch the problem the easier it is to deal with.
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, they 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 whose handler was less than professional. I am not saying it is a scam (though that can happen if the same company offers detection and treatment!) or the dog was poorly trained. It just has a built in inaccuracy which has to be kept in mind. The dogs are VERY accurate IF AND ONLY IF they are properly trained and handled and not distracted.
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 also have to be properly trained. 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. It seemed very unprofessional. Was the handler inexperienced? Or simply unprofessional? Or was it an outright scam to drum up business for his company? I don't know.
The second year we had an issue a different dog and different handler came (though from the same company). This time they seemed MUCH more professional and the handler limited the number of people around the dog to limit distractions. He did not detect bed bugs in our building. The difference was very clear between a handler who was showing off and one who was doing his job.
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 an 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. Though the darkness in movie theaters is a concern...when you come back from a movie, be particularly careful about your shoes, coat and pants cuffs. Treatment with rubbing alcohol (mentioned below) will help.
The main vector is bringing into your apartment items that have already got them living inside them...furniture, 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 (like lice) 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), rubbing alcohol, or diatomaceaous earth (see below). But my wife figures the safest is to not scrounge at all.
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. And a good cover shouldn't be uncomfortable. It also keeps you from having major dust mite problems, something almost all beds have and can make allergies worse. So the mattress and pillow covers are good all around, reducing chances of bed bug problems and reducing allergies.
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. Another exterminator I and others talked to suggested buying 90% or higher rubbing alcohol (a higher percent than the usual stuff you get, which is 70%) and putting some in a spray bottle in your entryway. Spraying your shoes every time you enter your home (particularly after being in a movie theater), your luggage when traveling (inside and out, before and after traveling), and any furniture you bring in can greatly limit the chances of bringing bed bugs into your home.
Now we come to some amazing stuff that I was dubious about but have seen in action. Diatomaceous earth is one of the best treatments to protect your home from ANY crawling bug, from ant to cockroach to bed bug, from entering. 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 are 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. It can't really harm us (in fact some people eat the stuff to cure or prevent intestinal parasites, but I am not sure this is okay!). 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" diatomaceous earth it can be used in a kitchen because it is considered so harmless.
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. Next time I use it so liberally I will wear a face mask. For months after I spread the stuff around, the diatomaceous earth was still visible in the crevices and corners around many of the rooms but isn't a problem in any way.
And the effectiveness? Within one day of spreading it around every single crawling insect, including ants, confused flour beetles, and cockroaches, just disappeared from our apartment. And they didn't come back for about a year. We live in a basement apartment, so we get insects every year and always have a kind of on going war with them. Nothing major, but we have to be vigilant. But after spreading diatomaceous earth, all crawling insects disappeared for a full 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 more than year now! In NYC...almost unheard of. The stuff works.
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 or sprayed them with 90% or higher rubbing alcohol when they got home, and spread diatomaceous earth around the edges of their apartment walls, 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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