Easterners Battle Bloodsucking Bedbugs

May 19, 2003 — -- Residents of Boston's Allston-Brighton section have been waking up with itchy red welts, blood spots on their bedding and sometimes a "sickly sweet" smell in their homes.

As the quaint, old-fashioned saying goes, "Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite."

Except it doesn't seem quaint any more to the Allston-Brighton residents who brought a bowl holding 30 to 40 dead bedbugs to a recent community meeting, witnesses said.

"So many people were making faces and … were reluctant to look at them," said Juan Gonzalez, director of community organizing for the Allston-Brighton Community Development Corp. "It was an itchy reaction. As soon as people saw that, the reaction was like that: 'I don't want to have those things. I don't want to imagine how they can affect me.' "

Bedbugs — which emerge from cracks and crevices at night to feast on human blood while victims sleep — were largely wiped out in the United States back when exterminators used pesticides such as DDT, which was banned after it was linked to environmental problems.

But over the past decade — with increased world travel that might allow bedbugs to hitch rides in suitcases and furniture joints — the creepy tick-sized critters are staging a comeback, exterminators say.

"It really uproots your entire life," said Matt Brown, a 31-year-old Brighton neighborhood resident who hasn't been able to sleep tight since February. "Once you've had bedbugs, every tiny little itch makes you jump up, get out of your sheets and turn on the lights."

Bedbugs Everywhere

In recent years, bedbugs began showing up even in expensive hotels frequented by jet-set travelers.

"You can find them in the flop hotel downtown and you can find them in some of the most expensive hotels," said Richard Kramer, director of technical services for American Pest Management in Takoma Park, Md. "Sanitation really doesn't have anything to do with it. I think it has more to do with traveling."

And now, exterminators say they are getting more and more calls about bedbug problems in private homes.

"We've probably been doing at least one [bedbug extermination] a month," said Kramer, whose company mostly operates in Washington, D.C. "Up until about two years ago, I don't think we'd done a bedbug job for 10 years, and if we did, it was a rare occasion."

New York City and Florida are among numerous hot spots up and down the East Coast, in the Upper Midwest and Texas, exterminators say.

Though published reports also have placed cases in San Diego and San Francisco, exterminators belonging to the National Pest Management Association in Dunn Loring, Va., have not seen the same degree of problems on the West Coast, said Greg Baumann, the NPMA's technical director.

"The people that are traveling into L.A. are from a different part of the world," where bedbugs may be less prevalent, said Baumann, whose group has reported bedbugs in at least 18 states and the District of Columbia in recent years.

Federal health officials do not track bedbug populations because there is no effective mechanism set up to monitor them, a spokeswoman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Bedbugs are not known to transmit any disease, though they are believed to harbor several, including hepatitis, according to entomologists and scientific studies.

Flee the Castle

On the other hand, bedbugs, also known by the scientific name Cimex lectularius, have been a major American nuisance as far back as Colonial times.

Some victims have no reaction to the bites, and initially may not even know the nocturnal bedbugs are around. But some with allergic reactions can get itchy red welts. And as infestations get worse, bedbugs give off an odor and stain bedding with human blood they have excreted.

They can survive months without feeding, and throughout human history have been known as tough critters to shake.

"One of the reasons for royalty moving from one castle to the next during the Middle Ages was bedbugs, moths, and carpet beetles," said Robert Snetsinger, a professor emeritus of entomology at Penn State University.

"After the kings, queens, etc., lived in a castle for several months, it became over run by pests and stunk," he added. "They then moved to the next palace, and the cleanup crew, including pest controllers, moved in."

In 1920s-era America, "cyanide fumigation was commonly used for bedbug control," said Snetsinger, author of Ratcatcher's Child: History of the Pest Control Industry. "Many hundred people were killed either during fumigation or afterward. The gas tended to cling to feather beds or feather pillows and many people died in their sleep after their homes were fumigated, especially babies in their cribs."

As late as the 1940s, Snetsinger said, "any hotel you stayed in had bedbugs."

DDT, chlordane, diazinon and other pesticides — as well as modern dry cleaning and laundering — helped make bedbugs seem as old-fashioned as the bedtime warning to avoid their bites. But now that they're back, exterminators have to make do without many of their former weapons.

"A lot of the products that worked effectively against them years ago are now no longer on the marketplace," Kramer said, adding that a good exterminator still can fight bedbugs, perhaps by putting repellant on victims' beds, and then finding and spraying bedbug nests with nonrepellant insecticides.

Boston Battles Bedbugs

In modern-day Boston, the problem soon may be the subject of a City Council hearing, and perhaps a public awareness campaign warning residents to check and thoroughly clean used furniture, suitcases and laundry — where bedbugs apparently can hide and be carried to infest new locations.

"When I started to talk about this on the council floor, I took a good ribbing from colleagues," said Jerry McDermott, the city councilor who represents Allston-Brighton. "There were some smirks. There were some good chuckles. A few of them rolled their eyes up to heaven."

But McDermott became a believer when he saw the plastic container of dead bedbugs at the Allston-Brighton meeting, and added that bedbugs have been reported elsewhere in the Boston area.

Brown plans to move out of the Brighton apartment: He believes it still has bedbugs despite a visit from an exterminator and his own exhaustive efforts.

Brown started to wake up with itchy red dots on his chest, back, arms and face in February, and was puzzled until a co-worker suggested he look into the possibility of bedbugs.

"I tore the bedroom apart, looked at all the sheets and finally found … one live one and one dead one," he said. "In order to keep the numbers down you have to wash every single piece of fabric you own [in scalding water]. When it comes out of the drier, you have to store them in plastic."

He started to sense "a sickly sweet smell," and his landlord and building manager brought in an exterminator.

"Over the next two weeks … I didn't have any bites," he said. "Then I woke up with more dots. … And then, I sort of bought some over-the counter stuff that they recommended and proceeded to nuke my apartment every two or three weeks."

But the bedbugs kept returning. Tired of repeatedly scrubbing down his apartment and packing his possessions in plastic to contain the bedbugs, Brown decided to move.

"The ability of these bugs to survive has really amazed me," Brown said. "I think when the bombs fall, it's going to be between the bedbugs and the cockroaches."