While they do not spread disease-causing germs, bedbugs can cause painful irritation and itching. They are hard and expensive to eradicate, often requiring the application of insecticides by pest control specialists or special steam treatments, according to experts. In rare cases, residents must leave their homes for weeks.
In the heavily traveled corridor between Texas and Louisiana, which is dotted with hotels, James Self has exterminated pests for three decades.
"I don't know if I'd say it's an epidemic or not," said Self, owner of Ameritex Pest Control in Beaumont, Texas. "I never actually had a call to go treat for any bedbug until about four years ago. In the last year and half, I'm getting three to five calls a month. Sometimes, I'll get 10 calls in a week. Bedbugs are great hitchhikers."
His initial inspection is free, Self said. "I'm kind of unusual at that. A lot of guys charge $100, $200 for an inspection."
His fee to treat an infestation: $500 minimum. "I use a product that mixes with water and then you spray," said Self, declining to reveal the ingredients. "I have an aerosol I use on mattresses and couches."
A small town of 15,000, Beaumont, with eight pest control operators, is a competitive market, according to Self. "I bid on a small, four-apartment complex for 2,000 bucks but a guy came in behind me at $600 for all of them. Sometimes you get what you pay for."
Douglas Stern, managing partner of New Jersey-based Stern Environmental Group, started a new division of his extermination business six months ago in response to the growing number of infestations.
His company's new "bed-bug-prep concierge service" helps large-scale clients prepare infested furniture, large objects and spaces for extermination. Stern said he's worked with a number of high-profile clients including airlines and department stores. About half of the firm's business now is bedbug related and Stern said plans are in the works to expand into other cities.
"This is just the beginning," Stern said. "What we're experiencing in New York City other cities are not yet seeing. The problem is spreading."