Some of the best homes, finest hotels now have (horrors!) bedbugs

JOHN INTINI January 14 2008


Some of the best homes, finest hotels now have (horrors!) bedbugs

JOHN INTINI January 14 2008


Some of the best homes, finest hotels now have (horrors!) bedbugs



The itching had gone

on for three weeks before Betty finally called for help. Her daughter had suggested that bedbugs might be to blame, but Betty (not her real name) was skeptical. After all, she thought, bedbugs don’t travel to affluent neighbourhoods like hers, located just east of Toronto. “That’s something they get in Regent Park,” she said. “Not here.” Contacting Carlo Panacci, a nine-year veteran of the war on bugs, was therefore nothing more than a precautionary measure. But soon after arriving at her home later that October day, Panacci found some troubling signs—rustcoloured spots—in every bedroom. He even uncovered a few live bedbugs hiding in the seams of Betty’s mattress.

These tiny bloodsuckers are no longer just in children’s rhymes and homeless shelters.

In fact, bedbugs, nearly eradicated in North America in the 1950s thanks to DDT, are enjoying a modern-day resurgence. Some blame the green movement and the banning of many pesticides. Others say it’s due to the increase in international travel. Whatever the case, bedbugs (dubbed “the pest of the 21st century” by experts) are multiplying at a horrific pace and are being found in all kinds of high-traffic areas—cruise ships, college dorms, doctors’ offices, nursing homes, movie theatres, hospitals, airplanes, coffee shops, homes, even five-star hotels. “There is no class discrimination,” says Michael Goldman, who owns Purity Pest Control in Concord, Ont., and found some last year in a 6,000-sq.-foot house in Forest Hill, a tony Toronto neighbourhood.

To get a full sense of the bedbug boom, ask any pest control expert. Panacci, for one, used to have a 1-800 number for his company, Cain Pest Control, but cancelled it because he was getting overwhelmed by cries for help from people in B.C., Newfoundland and

everywhere in between. He now averages about eight to 10 bedbug inquiries a day. “I got so busy with bedbugs I gave up on raccoons and squirrels,” he says. Doug Wadlow, who runs Orkin Pest Control in Edmonton, says bedbug calls are up 300 per cent from 2004. Meanwhile, John Mitten, branch manager of Poulin’s Pest Control in Vancouver, says bedbugs will total 25 per cent of his firm’s work this year. That’s up from 13 per cent in ’06. Some U.S. companies are getting as many as 50 bedbug calls a day. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see which way this is headed,” says Michael Potter, an entomology professor at the University of Kentucky and one of the world’s top bedbug researchers. Potter describes the spread of bedbugs as “a bit like a communicable disease.”

Since bedbugs don’t transmit diseases (the common result of a bite is itchy red welts), public health agencies consider them more of a nuisance than a threat. Try telling that, however, to anyone who has gone through the mental anguish of an infestation. Panacci

recently treated the apartment of a middleclass Toronto woman who had thrown away most of her clothes and was living with little more than a single bed, a small TV, a folding tray and a lawn chair. Potter knows someone who slept in a pup tent in his living room for four months, long after the bugs were gone. And Mitten tells the story of a Vancouver nurse who was so desperate for a good night’s sleep that she moved into the doctors’ oncall room in the busy intensive care unit where she worked while her apartment was being treated (her home required five sweeps before getting a clean bill of health). Even after two treatments, Betty still has trouble sleeping at night and often thinks she sees things when doing chores like dusting. In nearly every case, the slightest itch refuels the paranoia.

Many pest control experts, therefore, split their time on the clock between killing bugs and acting as therapist. “I’ve had people sitting here in tears, absolutely distraught,” says Mitten from his Vancouver office. “It’s as if their world has ended.” Despite the fact that bedbugs, unlike filth-seeking cockroaches, thrive just as well in pristine environments, the stigma attached to having them weighs heavily.

When asked if any of her neighbours have gone through a similar hell, Betty wonders how she would ever know. “This isn’t something you talk about,” she says. One study of pest control professionals found that 60 per cent of clients are more upset by the discovery of bedbugs than rodents, termites or roaches.

It’s no wonder bedbug support groups and message boards have popped up online. Even pest control experts suffer the occasional anxiety attack. “A couple of times, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night, felt something crawl on me, and just freaked out,” says Goldman. “It turned out to be my wife’s hair.”

If anyone should be frightened of bedbugs, it’s those in the hotel business. Their bottom line depends on selling a good night’s sleep. And with a constant turnover of guests, the possibility that someone will walk up to the front desk with a bedbug in their suitcase is a constant threat.

Two years ago, Michael Bird, manager of the Delta Prince Edward, a qU-star property in Charlottetown, woke up to a nightmarish situation one morning when a business trav-

eller complained about small bites while checking out. “We immediately tore apart the room,” says Bird. The attack, luckily, was isolated to one room. But Bird didn’t take any chances. Following treatment, the room was sealed off for two months (longer than had been recommended by his pest control expert) and bedbug-detection training of his entire staff, which is becoming increasingly common, was ramped up. Bird considers bedbugs a minor nuisance and an occupational hazard (“I’d rather deal with bedbugs than terrorists”), but says it’s something hotels have to be prepared for since they’re forced to handle it on a “reactive basis.”

The Steritech Group, a Charlotte, N.C.based pest management company, found that nearly 25 per cent of the 700 hotels surveyed between 2002 and 2006 needed some kind of bedbug treatment. And while less than one per cent of the 76,000 rooms in the study were actually infested, hotel owners know it only takes one nasty review—like an allegation of a one-night stand with a bedbug or two—on Expedia or Travelocity to create a public relations nightmare. So would a post on bedbugregistry.com, an online database


that tracks infestations at hotels and apartment buildings in the U.S. and Canada.

For a hotel owner or landlord, about the only thing worse than finding their property on that site is legal action. One precedentsetting case involved Burl and Desiree Mathias, a brother and sister from Toronto. In 2003, they were awarded US$372,000 in punitive damages after being eaten alive by bedbugs in a Motel 6 in Chicago. Since then, property owners have paid out hundreds of thousands in settlements to bitter, bitten travellers.

The potential for unwanted publicity and monster payouts have many hotel owners taking preventive steps. Many hotels have purchased bedbug-proof mattress cases. And some are even calling in pest control professionals to do inspections without the slightest hint of a problem. One high-priced boutique property in New York City, for instance, has a certificate in the lobby identifying it as bedbug-free.

Even cities, afraid that bedbugs could have a SARS-like effect on tourism, are considering ways to stop the spread. In New York, the hardest hit by the bedbug’s return to civilization, there was talk earlier this year about a ban on the sale of refurbished mattresses. In Toronto, the city’s public health department is assessing the scope of the problem. Its report is due in February. There is also debate in some municipalities over who should pay for treatment—the landlord or the tenant—if an apartment becomes infested. Provincial legislation varies.

Still, there are things, experts say, you can do to protect yourself. For starters, no matter how ritzy the joint, it pays to give a hotel room a good once-over before turning off the lights and climbing under the covers. Pull back the bedding and search all the creases and crevices for little dark spots, or the bugs themselves. Also check behind the headboard,

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And don’t lay your luggage on the bed or floor. Finding the bugs, however, isn’t easy. Bedbug eggs are about a millimetre in length, newborns are translucent, and fully grown adults are flat and a little smaller than an apple seed. Only after meals (they survive on blood) do they swell, becoming more oblong, and turn a reddish colour. And they don’t live only in and around the bed. In fact, they can hide almost anywhere—on drapes, behind frames and mirrors, even in smoke detectors. Bedbugs, which search out their victims after


dark, can live up to a year without eating and can hitchhike in everything from suitcases to pant pockets. And bite victims react in very different ways. “I’ve been in places where the wife is getting slaughtered and the husband, who is sleeping in the same bed, doesn’t react at all,” says Potter. As much as half the population, he says, won’t show any signs.

Buying used furniture or picking through neighbours’ trash—for several reasons, including heightening the risk of bringing home bedbugs—is frowned upon. Still, experts warn against overreacting. Bedbugs rarely pene-


trate the mattress, says Potter, so there is often no need to throw it out. And, he says, a 10-minute spin in the clothes dryer on high heat will kill them.

That said, getting rid of bedbugs is tougher these days—even for the pros. Many strains are becoming resistant to pyrethroids, the most commonly used chemical. And, says Potter, “it doesn’t look like there is a silverbullet bedbug eliminator coming down the pipe any time soon.” Even if one did, he says, the liability of spraying beds and couches with it would restrict its use. “Bedbugs live in all the places that we’ve been training the pest control industry in the last 20 years not to spray,” says Potter. “Back in the days of DDT, it was recommended practice to spray

the pillows, the entire mattress. Nothing wasn’t dripping when you walked out.” Before then, bedbugs were a whole lot more common. “I’ve read diaries from the ’30s where they wrote about springtime bedbug cleaning,” says Potter. “They’d throw boiling water on the walls, pour oil into the crevices of the wood floors, sleep for two weeks and then start the process again. It was part of life.” Nobody wants that bit of history to repeat itself, making the search for effective detection methods all the more important. The use of bedbug-sniffing K-9 units is gaining momentum. In Canada, Purity Pest Control’s Goldman has the only two: Kody, a 41/2-year-old border collieGerman shepherd-husky mix, and Alexa, a 15-monthold golden retriever. As part of their training, Goldman hides actual bugs (in vials or on pins) in his own mattress. “My wife is a good sport,” he says.

The dogs are paying off with increased interest from hotel chains and hospitals. They can sniff out bedbugs 90 to 95 per cent of the time, he says. Goldman, who has been in the business for 27 years, says he, like most pest control experts, is about 35 per cent accurate during a visual inspection. “I don’t know what’s behind a baseboard,” he says. “Humans smell parts per thousand. Dogs smell parts per trillion.” Kody sits and points his paw when he finds something. Alexa rubs her nose on hot spots. On top of being more precise, the dogs speed up the process. Goldman can be in and out of a hotel room in 60 seconds with his dogs. A human inspection can take more than 45 minutes.

However, bug-sniffing dogs, of which there are just a few in the world, only identify a problem. They certainly don’t solve it. For that, a killer chemical or, perhaps, a natural predator, of which bedbugs have very few, is key. Potter, for one, sees the problem getting a whole lot worse. In fact, he says, “I’m having a hard time figuring out how it’s going to get better.” So much for sleeping tight. M