New Technology Cuts Costs of Killing Bedbugs

A new technology offers a cheaper way to eradicate these bloodsucking pests.

ByABC News
September 30, 2009, 6:04 PM

Oct. 7, 2009— -- Entomologist Phil Koehler saw a bad case of the bedbugs last month. The parasites had gone unnoticed by a resident in an on-campus apartment at the University of Florida, in Gainesville for what could have been months. By the time Koehler arrived to inspect the infestation, there were hundreds: under the futon and in the walls.

"They were everywhere. It was discovered by chance by some of the maintenance people who walked in and saw the bedbugs," said Koehler, a professor at UF's Food and Agricultural Sciences.

A little more than a decade ago, Koehler destroyed his research colony of bedbugs, the small tick-like parasites that dine off people's blood in the places humans like to live and sleep. There was little reason to keep the colony for study, Koehler said, since in the United States, there were hardly any of the insects left to cause a problem.

But things have changed -- and college campuses are among the hardest hit.

"There have been two other apartments within the last month that we know of in family housing that have had infestations," said Koehler, who often advises his university and others on parasite problems.

Roberto Pereira, a research scientist who works with Koehler at UF, said because bedbugs have been off the public's radar for so long, many people don't know to take the right precautions to prevent the spread of these pests, or how to properly treat an outbreak.

But Koehler and Pereira recently discovered a low-cost way to eradicate bedbugs in furniture -- by heating them to death. Clothes, sheets and other bedding can be placed in a clothes dryer at high heat for about 15 minutes to kill the pests -- so why not heat up the infested furniture?

With less than $400 of equipment, the researchers created a portable chamber big enough for a bed or dresser. Heaters inside the chamber gently raise its air temperature to a minimum of 113 degrees Fahrenheit -- enough to destroy the insects but not damage the items.

Their research was published in the Journal of Economic Entomology in July.

Koehler said he was recently contacted by officials from a large university that had detected a bedbug infestation in one of its dormitories and threw out $15,000 worth of furniture. (Koehler said the institution asked him to keep its identity private.)

Throwing away the funiture was an unnecessary step, Koehler said, in part because the bugs don't get into plastic-covered dorm mattresses very easily.

"We're in a time of economic difficulty. For someone to take out $15,000 of perfectly good furniture and throw it in the dump, that's not smart when everyone's cutting budgets. Throwing out the furniture doesn't stop the problem," he added.