by Jim Namiotka
The war on bedbugs was winnable, experts say.
When the flesh-eating insects began their U.S. resurgence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we humans had our chance. Brought into airports and hotels by international travelers, a focused attack could have eradicated the pest not seen in such great numbers since the mid-20th century.
But no one talked about bedbugs then. And by the time the widening epidemic was noticed by the general population in the late 2000s, it was too late.
Now, according to Richard Cooper, one of New Jersey’s foremost experts on bedbugs, humans are in for a long, entrenched war whose progress will be measured in years.
“I think we had that opportunity and missed it,” Cooper said.
New Jersey is in the heart of the Northeast’s bedbug outbreak. Located between two major urban infestations — New York City is No. 1, according to a 2011 Terminix ranking of the most infested U.S. cities; Philadelphia is No. 5 — reports of bedbug problems are increasing in the Garden State as the pest makes its way from city centers into the suburbs and their public spaces.
In the past two months, the tiny, reddish insects were found in schools in Lakewood and Woodbridge. Bedbugs have been reported in public buildings, theaters, jails, hospitals and school buildings throughout New Jersey.
“Bedbugs are very small, and they can hide very well,” said Changlu Wang, a Rutgers University entomologist who studies bedbugs and other urban pests. “You may think you’ve killed them all, but you miss a few. Those few can survive and restart the problem.”
The last time the U.S. experienced a bedbug problem of this magnitude was the 1940s and 1950s, experts say. That infestation was handled effectively with pesticides, primarily DDT. But half a century later, in the late 1990s, bedbug reports began to resurface — this time linked to international travelers who picked up the insects in South America, Africa and Asia, and brought them back to American shores in luggage and clothing.
At that point, heightened awareness could have helped stop bedbugs from gaining a new foothold in the U.S. But bedbugs carry with them a stigma — they’re dirty. People and places with bedbugs are labeled unclean, messy and unsanitary.
So hotels — the ground zero for early bedbug issues — handled their problems quietly. It wasn’t until the problem grew so quickly that it made news reports in the mid-2000s that awareness and attention to the problem began to increase. By then, it was too late, Cooper said.
“We lived in denial and maintained the stigma that it (bedbugs) only happens to other people,” said Cooper, an entomologist and technical director of Cooper Pest Solutions in Lawrenceville. “That’s the kind of ignorance that allowed bedbugs to spread. Had the nation realized what it was dealing with, we probably could have nipped it.”
It’s no small irony that a problem commonly — and wrongly — associated with poverty and unsanitary conditions actually was brought to the U.S. by the middle and upper classes, those with the means to travel to other continents, according to Cooper. And it was the swankier New York hotels where the bedbugs were first spotted a decade ago.
Today, however, it is poorer communities where bedbugs have found their foothold. But it’s not a matter of cleanliness, Cooper said. It’s a matter of money.
Because the modern bedbug is resistant to most common pesticides, ridding a home of bedbugs is a months-long, multi-layered process.
It’s time-consuming and expensive, ranging anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000, depending on the extent of the infestation, the exterminator and the specific eradication program.
If bedbugs invade a typical New Jersey McMansion, a single family with a middle- to upper-class income can afford the cost of treating the home and commit itself to ridding the home of the habitats — clothing, bedding, mattresses, furniture and cluttered storage areas — where the pests thrive.
Poorer families might not be able to afford an extensive treatment program, however. That means an in-home bedbug problem might be temporarily stifled, but not fully eliminated, because families can’t afford additional treatments. Renters might choose to move rather than pay for treatments — leaving the bedbugs for the landlord and new tenants to deal with, and perhaps carrying some of the critters with them to a new home.
“For a single homeowner, you really can eliminate bedbugs in a reasonable amount of time, maybe one or two months,” Wang said. “But when it comes to an apartment building, that’s where it becomes more difficult. It requires building-wide action.”
Earlier this year, Cooper, who is studying for his doctorate in entomology at Rutgers University and is a founder of BedBug Central, considered one of the most thorough online resources for information about the painful pest, was awarded a $100,000 education and outreach grant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
He’s using the money to develop a plan that will educate low-income and multi-family housing dwellers about bedbug resistance, as well as develop a pest management program aimed at apartment buildings and other places where bedbugs can take root.
It’s the rapid spread of bedbugs and their entrenchment in large communities of people that make the modern battle so difficult, Cooper said. That, and the fact that today’s bedbugs are so resistant to chemical weapons: pesticides.
“It’s not that there are no chemicals that work,” Cooper said. “There’s just no simple cure like there was back in the ’40s and ’50s, when you could spray a place with DDT.”
That’s not to say humans aren’t making some progress, he said.
First, in 2006, there were no academic institutions studying bedbugs. Today, there are 12 to 14 universities with bedbug research programs — “urban entomology” studies that look at all aspects of bedbugs, from molecular to behavioral to chemical, to applied sciences such as pesticides.
“That’s how we’ll eventually turn the tide, by better understanding the insect,” Cooper said. “But I don’t foresee some sort of inexpensive silver bullet.”
However, exterminators now have accumulated more than a decade’s worth of data and experience on the best way to handle bedbugs.
Considering that more than a generation of exterminators never saw a bedbug, they have achieved significant field experience in a relatively short period of time.
Today, extermination programs use a combination of pesticides as well as natural methods that kill bedbugs with extreme heat or extreme cold, as well as eliminating their habitats.
“We have more scientific understanding, more skills on the ground,” Cooper said. “But it’s slow, and it’s expensive.”
For Action Termite and Pest Control, located in Toms River and Red Bank, bedbugs have doubled the size of the business in less than 10 years, according to Michael Russell, vice president of sales and marketing.
When bedbugs finally reached the Jersey Shore in the mid-2000s, Russell said, Action was the first company to begin using bedbug-sniffing dogs to find infestations. Today, the company has six dogs and has grown from 24 employees to 48. Its market has expanded from Ocean County to include New York and Philadelphia.
“We probably didn’t get a (bedbug) call for 30 years,” Russell said. “Today, it’s 50 percent of the business.”
Action first uses dogs to sniff out bedbugs wherever they hide. Russell says the dogs are 98 percent effective, compared with 35 percent for a visual human inspection. They then treat the infested areas with a one-two punch of steam heat and chemicals.
Why is so much attention paid to the tiny bedbug? Why have these insects, barely visible to the naked eye, demanded so much human energy during the past decade? Why more than mice, mosquitoes or cockroaches?
It’s because they live where we live and, more importantly, feed on our flesh.
“Tolerance for bedbugs versus roaches, for example, is zero,” Wang said, “because of the pain and discomfort they cause.” Bedbugs can leave their victims covered with hundreds of tiny, painful bites — often inflicted while the victim sleeps.
It’s a pain that, Cooper insists, could have been avoided with more immediate attention a decade ago.
“In 2011, everyone is aware that bedbugs are real, but the average person doesn’t believe it’s something that will affect them,” Cooper said. “While we hear and read it’s not about hygiene or housekeeping and it can happen to anyone, it doesn’t register,” he said. “Now they’re going to be a part of the culture.”