New Technology Cuts Costs of Killing Bedbugs

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

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.

Low-Cost Bedbug Solution

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.

The High Cost of Killing bedbugs: Six-Figure Bills for Some Schools

In September, ABC News affiliate KMGH-TV in Denver reported the city's public library system was forced to spend $6,000 to fumigate one of its branches -- the process destroyed $12,000 worth of rare books that had become laden with bedbugs after having been loaned out to a patron, who has since been banned from the library.

At John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the New York City the final price tag of its bedbug extermination program has not been determined, since it is still ongoing, said college spokeswoman Chris Godek.

Though pest control professionals say the cost to eliminate bedbugs from a large area like a college building can be pricey.

"Dorms could easily spend $30,000 in a heartbeat," said Jeff Eisenberg, president of Pest Away pest management company in New York City. "We have a lot of colleges where they get rid of it, then the students come back, and they're infested again."

If repeat infestations occur, Eisenberg said costs can quickly climb, sometimes resulting in six-figure extermination bills.

And these days, many companies are not taking chances -- calling in an exterminator even when an intern finds a bedbug on him.

"Just today I was in a nice office, and they said an intern found a bedbug on his sweater," Eisenberg said. "When they found two, that's suspect. We had to go down deeper. Interns are very often coming from dormitories, which are often problems."

Bedbugs on Campus: Read All About It

College towns and campus dorms and buildings, home to large numbers of transient students keen on cheap furniture and shared living spaces, have been especially fertile breeding grounds for the bloodsuckers.

"We've gotten a number of calls from students from off campus who really need some assistance," Koehler said.

With the beginning of the fall semester, college newspapers across the country -- and even The New York Times -- have bumped up the bedbug on their list of newsworthy issues in higher education.

Toward the beginning of the semester, the University of Richmond's independent student newspaper, the Collegian, ran this headline on its bedbug story: "The Next College Pandemic?"

The Daily Free Press, Boston University's independent school newspaper, reported last Tuesday that school officials had identified "the bedbug infestation in dormitories such as Student Village and Myles-Standish Hall as a serious concern" within the past year. So far this year, the student newspaper reported, housing officials are "currently unaware of any active cases on campus."

Bedbugs Invade College Campuses

Several other school newspapers, from New York University's Washington Square News to Northern Kentucky University's Northerner have run similar stories in recent weeks.

Though none have made such a skin-crawling splash as the bedbug scare at the John Jay College in late September. The college was forced to reschedule all classes in an infested building until an extermination could be completed.

After school officials carried out a campus-wide sweep and held community forums, school officials warned students and faculty not to let their guard down. The pests could come back.

"The treatments we have applied have a 100 percent effectiveness track record, but we are still vulnerable to the transportation of bedbugs from the outside," said college president Jeremy Travis in a statement Monday.

While many schools have experienced the bedbug itch in recent years, this year's spike appears to be more virulent than in the past.

According to the National Pest Management Association, bedbug infestations have increased 71 percent between 2001 and 2009. In perhaps another indication of public concern about bedbugs, Google search engine queries, show that people are now Googling "bedbugs" twice as often as the average rate over the past five years.

Preventing Bedbugs

Old couches put out on sidewalks might seem like a nice addition to a dorm common area, but they are also potential bedbug strongholds.

Pereira said the current bedbug trouble in the U.S. is likely the result of travelers from overseas bringing the parasites with them.

"Most people are probably getting infestations from traveling -- bringing belongings back that have eggs, or nymphs of the bedbug. There are a lot of new people going in and out," Pereira said.

For more information on how bedbugs are spread, click HERE.