Not Just Another Bedbugs Story

Dini Miller’s phone rings nonstop these days. But Miller, one of the nation’s most esteemed bedbug experts, is not just getting calls from reporters hungry for the latest story. Today, a man called wanting to demonstrate a bedbug trap he’d invented. “Here’s another guy who has a trap and he’s never tried it on bedbugs. He has no idea. It would be like me designing a trap for rhinoceroses. It could work. But I don’t know a thing about rhinos,” she laughs.

Calls like this are not unusual for Miller, an entomologist at Virginia Tech University. To be fair, the calls are not completely unsolicited: The school’s Integrated Pest Management program offers pest-product testing for a fee. But, as far off the mark as many of these would-be inventors may be, they are not the only ones getting bedbugs wrong. According to Miller, and some of her colleagues, reporters are almost as off the mark.

Miller and I spoke by phone in early September, the day after a big New York Times story hit, in which she was one of the experts quoted. But even that story was not quite on target from Miller’s perspective. Asked her opinion of the story, she said, “it’s fine.” But Miller insists it is the same story being told over and over. “Most all of the reporters who call have asked me the exact same questions,” she said, “and I feel like we haven’t really moved beyond here.”

Penn State University integrated pest management specialist Lyn Garling feels similarly. She told me via email that bedbugs are “definitely a big problem and getting bigger,” but that, “journalists are using a lot of hyperbole and incendiary language,” in their news articles. “Every form of media is on the band wagon because bedbugs are gross, easy to write nasty headlines about and sell newspapers (or whatever is being sold).”

I was one of the off-the-mark reporters. And while my story angle wasn’t incendiary, I’d contacted Miller and Garling, wanting to talk about the connection between insecticide resistance and the resurgence of bedbugs, which the experts say is not the central issue. The story that Miller believes journalists continue to miss is this: “Bedbugs are going to be around for the rest of my natural life and your natural life. [So] how is society going to change to deal with this pest that is going to be with us from now on? How are we going to address the future with bedbugs in it, and get out of this denial?”

OPEN (OR CLOSED?) FOR BUSINESS

The newest media darling of the insect family is a blood-feeding bedbug that is particularly well-adapted to humans, bats and birds, including poultry. Tiny, flat, oval, and red-brown in color, the insect’s size is often compared to an apple seed. And while its itch-inducing bite is a nuisance – it may cause skin rashes and allergy symptoms – the bedbug is no vector of disease. Bedbugs were once a common everyday pest in the United States. It wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s when widespread use of chemical agent DDT mostly eliminated them. DDT was outlawed by 1972 in the U.S. because of its danger to wildlife and human health, and for its long-term persistence in ecosystems.

You know you have arrived as an insect when Overstock.com is putting warnings about you in their Bedding Blowout emails. Or, better yet, when you’ve conquered the Empire State Building (apparently, it doesn’t take an oversized gorilla). While New York has been the epicenter of the resurgence of this nuisance bug, the problem has surfaced in dozens of cities throughout the country, the top most infested including Philadelphia, Detroit, and three cities in Ohio.

And the bedbug is not just infesting apartments anymore. Bedbugs are showing up in places of business, in high-end retail stores like Victoria’s Secret, in movie theaters, and even at an IRS office in Philadelphia. Outside of businesses and places of work, they are being found in schools, nursing homes and shelters.

“Cities are a complex environment,” says Garling. “And the issues around bedbugs prevention and control are complex and involve people as much as the pest.” Adding to the complexity, explains Garling, is that the people-pest dynamics vary depending on whether bedbugs are found in, “public environments (schools), in private environments (multi-family housing, nursing homes, shelters) or commercial environments (hotels, theaters).”

In cities, where the bug infestations are more typical, the bedbug has become an economic burden for some businesses, especially hotels. When they show up, businesses are faced with a time-consuming and costly endeavor, which can run from several hundred to several thousand dollars. But even after the bugs are gone, businesses have the stigma to reckon with. “Is the Victoria’s Secret in New York City going to close forever because they have the potential for bedbugs to come in every single day?” Miller says, making the point that the public reaction – fear of bedbugs – has to change.

Hotels are the unluckiest of all. They could get rid of their bed bugs today, “for $1200 and have them walk right in tomorrow,” assures Miller. “Part of the reason there is so much money in lawsuits is that people think ‘oh my gosh, bed bugs are an appalling thing. Therefore if I run into them, somebody needs to do something about it.’” But what happens when bedbugs become a common, everyday occurrence, when bed bugs are just everywhere? “If every hotel has to deal with bedbugs on a regular basis, then will you be able to sue a hotel for having bedbugs? Well, those judges may say that bedbugs are almost unavoidable. We can’t just have lawsuits every five minutes.”

And while international travel is often cited as the main reason for the resurgence, Miller notes that there has been a lot of international travel in the last 50 years, but the fact that the bugs have returned only in the last handful or so suggests that the international travel theory is a little overstated.

Garling says the public has been responding to bedbugs media hype with hysteria. Pest management professionals are being called by people convinced they have an infestation, but don’t. “Every little nick or mosquito bite is being attributed to bedbugs,” she says. That hysteria feeds a second problem: Individuals are taking extermination upon themselves, buying all kinds of dangerous chemicals over the Internet. These chemicals are being sold by, Garling says, “unscrupulous vendors selling all kinds of untested and often illegal ‘miracle chemical cures’ for bed bugs.”

Miller believes bedbugs will become less of a terror and, consequently, less of an economic burden once the public moves beyond the denial stage. “The problem that we’re having today is that we just become outraged if we run into bedbugs some place, rather than thinking, ‘okay, there is the potential for bedbugs to be anywhere. What am I going to do about my behavior to avoid them?’ And I think in the future if bedbugs become widespread, we’re going to have to look at doing things differently.” She uses doctors, nurses and others who may do home visits as an example, suggesting that they may need to dress differently and carry their equipment differently to avoid spreading bedbugs.

And whereas the common cockroach is rarely a problem for the middle and upper classes, the bedbug does not discriminate. Miller gets so many people, “writing me and calling me, and throwing fits over the phone. ‘This is so terrible, so horrible,’ [they say.] And I’m like, ‘it’s not. It’s really not. It’s just different.’ [People] are losing their minds.” The callers are always wealthy, she says. “And they are outraged, ‘how could this happen to me?’”

What the callers don’t understand is that bedbugs are a natural occurrence. “This is the natural state; being without them [for 50 years] was the unnatural state,” reminds Miller. “Everybody wants them to go away completely and forever, and in biological systems, that just doesn’t happen. We had a 50 year respite, and now that I know what I know about bedbugs, I am surprised about that.”

One hundred years ago when bedbugs were a fact of life, people weren’t suing over them. The public was more conscious as they left the house, in public places, and as they re-entered their home, explains Miller. Travelers looked at the state of their baggage. Then, upon entering their house, they inspected their bags or unpacked them right away to look at it. “I think in 10 years we will start to [re]develop bedbug consciousness – if we haven’t gotten rid of this pest through some miracle, and that’s what I think it’s gonna take,” says Miller.

Because of the expense of extermination, a lot of people can’t afford it, including apartment managers. Garling proposes that, since bedbugs spread more like a communicable disease rather than a typical insect pest, cities should attack them like a public health problem. “Effectively getting rid of bedbugs will require a collective team effort on the part of everyone – landlords, residents, pest management professionals,” and that health departments should play a role – whether organizing competent bed bug ‘swat teams’ and/or task forces across sectors, and possibly providing cost share for individuals or families who cannot afford pest control. “Otherwise, it will be every man and woman for themselves – and the bed bugs will win.”

Multi-unit housing is indeed one of the most problematic elements of bedbugs control, the experts say. Up to now, apartment managers have been trying to deal with infestations on, Miller says, “a unit by unit basis, because they don’t want all of their tenants to know that bedbugs are in the building.” But if the bedbugs aren’t addressed properly, they can spread to multiple units, another way that hiding the problem based on public fear and denial is actually feeding the problem. It gets even more complicated: Often, apartment management will make tenants foot the bill for control, so tenants stop reporting it, making the spread more likely. But even apartment complexes that completely eliminate an infestation aren’t safe. Bedbugs have the potential to return “any day – any day,” says Miller, so her question is, “How are we going to deal with that in a long-term plan?”

BUGS IN THE LABORATORY

Cornell University bedbugs expert Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, of the New York State Integrated Pest Management program, believes that, aside from the people-pest dynamic and pesticide resistance, there is yet another reason bedbugs are on the rise: poultry farms. According to a recent study by Texas A&M University, bedbugs are widespread in breeding and egg-laying operations. “I think bedbugs were [always] making their way from [poultry] to homes.”

Gangloff-Kaufmann says it is likely that farm workers pick up bedbugs from the poultry operations and bring them back to their homes, especially with many workers being transient. “They go to different places to work. They go to stores to buy things. They live in apartments. So there are real simple roots of transmission from poultry to the community.”

While Gangloff-Kaufmann is among the country’s top experts, and has researched other insects, she does no actual lab research bedbugs. Miller, on the other hand, does. In fact, she is one of very few scientific researchers in the U.S. working on them. Most entomologists shy away from them because they are a hassle to keep in the lab. Miller’s current research is finding that today’s bedbugs are quite different than the ones that were reported 100 years ago: They produce fewer eggs, but they have shorter life spans so they develop much faster – all characteristics common in any insect species that has developed resistance to insecticides.

The resurgence of bedbugs is particularly challenging, cites Miller, because the bugs have developed a high tolerance to various insecticides, including DDT. Bedbugs were close to eradicated for 50 years in the United States, but developing nations, where environmental regulation is lax, such as India and China, were still treating the insect with DDT. Insecticides eventually altered the biology and physiology of the insect. Today, there are three main differences from the pre-insecticidal bedbug – differences which have a lot to do with why the resurgence has been and is expected to remain difficult to control.

One difference is a thicker exoskeleton, which makes it difficult to get insecticides inside of the bug. The second difference is enhanced enzyme activity, so the insecticides that are able to penetrate the exoskeleton get detoxified quicker. Finally, each bedbug has a mutation in its nerve axon, where the insecticides typically work. “So we’ve kind of got this triple whammy bedbug that is capable of a lot of reproduction and can be moved around very, very easily.”

In the United States, Deltamethrin (of the synthetic pyrethroid class of insecticides, which are considered the safest) has been one of the top products in use in the last decade. But bedbugs are becoming resistant to it. For example, New York City bedbugs have been found to be 264 times more resistant to Deltamethrin than Florida bedbugs. Organophosphates were another powerful insecticide against bedbugs, but they were taken off the market nine years ago. Stronger insecticides, such as Propoxur, are still in use for cockroaches, but not available for household use; Propoxur is only sold for industrial and commercial uses. Some authorities pushed for an emergency exception to be made when the bedbugs resurgence hit but, explains Gangloff-Kaufmann, but the EPA said no, citing its potential threat to public health, especially chronic exposure in young children.

Development of new chemicals for eradicating bed bugs is a weighty challenge. To get a new indoor-use chemistry registered in the United States, it takes about two hundred million dollars, explains Miller, and ten years of toxicity testing so that the EPA will be able to evaluate the acute, chronic and long-term effects, torsadogenic effects, mutagenic effects and environmental impact. Then, the EPA asks for a tenfold, or sometimes a hundred-fold margin of safety. “So by the time that margin of safety is added on, the insecticides are not really effective against insects anymore,” Miller says.
Another reason is that there’s no money in insect pest chemicals. Chemical developers’ big market is agriculture, and they have little interest in developing chemicals for urban pests. Says Gangloff-Kaufmann: “very few chemicals come to market that are not involved with crops, like corn. It’s just not economically feasible.” Here’s why: If an agrochemical company invests 200 million dollars in ten years, the company still has to make the money back from marketing, etc, in their 10-year patent period. But if they can’t make those sales back, their product will likely go off patent, rendering the entire effort worthless, time-consuming and expensive.

Insecticide resistance is no longer just relegated to the realm of bedbugs and cockroaches. America’s pests are on the comeback. When Miller started in the integrated pest management field in 1992, fleas were a common occurrence. They were treated with insecticides, “And [the insecticides] worked so well – at first.” But not anymore; fleas too are developing resistance. Those new fleas are able to detoxify insecticides, just as bed bugs do.

Outside of chemical insecticides, what about alternatives? Fungi have been used as insecticides on crops, but they don’t work well for indoor insect pests, for many reasons, including that many of them are indoor allergens, and because of the lack of humidity. So, with much of the public’s desire to find alternatives to harsh chemicals, several companies are developing botanical insecticides, many made from essential oils. Recently, a company gave Gangloff-Kaufmann a new product to test. “And I tell you it doesn’t work on the mosquitoes in my back yard,” she laughs. “Everyone is trying to invest in the newest, latest, greatest and least toxic because if [something works] you can make a lot of money off of that.”

“Bedbugs are fascinating as far as all of these [combined elements at play],” says Miller,” economics, politics, the laws. We’ve got a lot of stuff working against us. Bedbugs are definitely kind of on the winning side right now.”

Hamida Kinge has written about everything from food security to ocean acidification to luxury cell phones. She was a 2009 fellow of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment and a 2008/09 reporting fellow of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She has contributed to Next American City, Grist, Philadelphia City Paper and U.R.B. domestically as well as Europe-based magazines Essential Macau and Straight No Chaser. For the past year, she has been teaching English as a foreign language to international students and business professionals. Hamida has also been a volunteer English tutor for the International Center in New York.

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