How to Fight a Scourge: Scenes from the Bedbug Summit

The mood was grim in Chicago, as exterminators and scientists from around the country gathered to propose solutions to the nation's bedbug infestation

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Adam Nadel / Polaris

A bed bug photographed under an Tescan SEM.

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At the Chicago summit, experts drove home the idea that battling bedbugs depends on early detection, and early detection depends on educating the public. Bedbug bites produce no reaction in approximately 1 out of 3 humans; among people who do react, the resulting itchy welts can be mistaken for mosquito bumps or allergic reactions. White says one thing to look for is bite marks in clusters or rows of three — no one quite knows why, but that can be a bedbug signature.

Another sign that the bugs have moved in: tiny rust-colored or black spots (telltale blood or feces) on mattress seams, behind headboards, on the underside of box springs, above baseboards or at the junction of wall and ceiling. This spotting can sometimes be mistaken for mold.

A number of lures and traps are designed to help homeowners and property managers survey for bedbugs. One simple and relatively inexpensive gizmo is called the ClimbUp Insect Interceptor. A set of plastic dishes, these devices are placed under the legs of a bed. Bugs using the bed legs to commute to and from their mattress feeding grounds can climb into the trap but can't climb out.

Catching them early, before the bugs disperse throughout the house, is "the single most important fact" in battling bedbugs, Cooper preaches. Once they've been discovered, it's time to call in the cavalry. Independent scientists at the Chicago summit were scornful of household products that claim to wipe out bedbugs. Even sprays and bombs that might kill the critters on contact cannot penetrate the crevices where bedbugs hide. Indeed, self-help can do more harm than good by driving the bugs into more remote hiding places — and the more they disperse, the harder they are to eliminate. One summiteer, Amanda Shaw of Bloomington, Ind., battled bedbugs for more than two years before she finally called in the pros.

Judging by the number of note-taking exterminators at the summit, however, even pest-control professionals are still searching for tips. There is no perfect insecticide. Even if DDT were magically restored to the market, bedbugs have evolved a resistance to their once mortal foe. Many professionals advise clients to zip their mattresses and box springs into impermeable casings, but not all products are created equal. Summit organizer Phillip Cooper (brother of Richard) says he has seen hungry bugs squeeze between the zipper teeth of ineffective mattress cases.

The exhibition hall in Chicago suggested the range of bedbug-fighting strategies. Mobile ovens offered to bake the bugs to death. ("Heat is the bedbug's Achilles' heel," says White.) Powerful vacuums proposed to suck them to oblivion. Some experts favored steaming; some favored poison dust; some suggested electrocution. A woman from Australia claimed to have eliminated her infestation by installing simple barriers on her bed legs and waiting patiently for the bugs to starve. That can be a long wait, given that Yale scientist Joshua Benoit has a live bedbug he has fed just once in the past two years and eight months. By using a combination of several techniques, competent pest-control companies should be able to wipe out an early infestation within a few weeks. The cost to tackle a single-family home can easily run past $1,000.

A better solution, experts agree, is to avoid importing bedbugs in the first place. Be cautious in public places where upholstered or wooden surfaces meet backpacks and purses — movie theaters, public libraries, even changing tables in public restrooms. Travelers should inspect hotel beds and headboards for signs of bedbugs; keep suitcases off the bed; unpack outside upon returning home; and put travel clothes immediately into a hot-water wash. At least one vendor offers plastic bags that dissolve in the laundry, so that travel clothes can be sealed at the hotel and dropped directly into the hot-water cycle. If you really want to be thorough, you can buy a $330 PackTite oven designed to bake your luggage to a bug-killing temperature. Otherwise, it might help to seal your suitcase in a plastic garbage bag.

Awareness and innovation should eventually make bedbugs a manageable problem for most people, says Phillip Cooper. "Mark my words: In the next 10 years, a silver bullet will be found. Somebody made Velcro, and it changed the world. Somebody will figure out how to deal with bedbugs, and after that, it will be just another pest, like roaches or yellow jackets." Avoiding a plague of bedbugs in America's low-income neighborhoods is a trickier matter. Residents of inexpensive apartments and rooming houses may not know how to spot the pests, or they may not want an exterminator poking through their few belongings. Landlords may lack the money or the will to take on bedbug infestations.

White hopes to launch a charity this year to offer bedbug control to poor families, and he says the most urgent task for bedbug scientists is to find a less costly way to conquer the insects. Meanwhile, governments will need to rewrite their rule books. For while history shows that we can't entirely eliminate bedbugs, no matter how strong our poisons might be, we can resist them — provided we muster some of their focus and determination.

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