Bedbugs are back, and they're not just rearing their rust-colored heads in New York City. Experts say they're spreading to other states and countries. Exterminators who handled one or two bedbug calls a year are now getting that many in a week, according to the National Pest Management Association.
"There's an epidemic going on throughout the country, and New York seems to be the hotbed," said Jeffrey Eisenberg, a pest control expert.
Bedbugs are turning up in hospitals, schools, movie theaters, health clubs. Recent reports put them in a New Jersey college dorm and a Los Angeles hotel — where one guest filed a $5 million lawsuit. Apartment tenants have taken landlords to court over infestations.
The current generation of exterminators has been caught unaware by these pests, which were all but forgotten for decades. They blame the comeback on several factors, primarily increased global travel and the banning of potent pesticides like DDT.
"We feel like we're starting from scratch," said Eisenberg, who returned this weekend from a conference where bedbugs were a top priority. "The only thing we know is that we don't know anything."
The tiny vermin avoid light and attack in the middle of the night. About the size of a flattened apple seed, they hide in cracks and crevices in furniture and walls.
They're efficient and active travelers, often hitching rides on clothing and jumping from host to host when people brush up against each other on the subway, in elevators or on crowded streets.
And they invade even the cleanest apartments and swankiest neighborhoods.
"We've always had pests in New York City — we have rats, cockroaches, et cetera — but bedbugs are new," said city Councilwoman Gail Brewer, who is calling for a bedbug task force. "We're not doing a good job focusing on it."
Fighting an infestation is a costly, time-consuming process. Belongings must be removed from the home to be thoroughly washed or dry-cleaned, followed by meticulous vacuuming, before the exterminator can even begin work. It often takes several visits.
People who have bedbugs rarely see them. The only signs are pepper-like spots of their fecal matter, specks of dried blood on bed sheets and, of course, the bites. The scourge is nearly impossible to eradicate; the creatures can go a year without feeding, they reproduce rapidly and don't die easily.
"Now it's just us against these bugs," said Sofia Capinha, a 20-year-old college junior whose New Jersey dorm room has been infested since September.
Between calls to campus officials and visits from an exterminator, she and her roommate have tried covering her mattress in a zippered plastic cover and greasing bedposts with Vaseline to keep the bugs from crawling up.
Nothing has worked. Two nights after they returned from holiday break, she was bitten again — on the face.
In New York City, Brewer announced new legislation Sunday that seeks to halt some common mattress industry practices that exacerbate the problem.
She wants a ban on reconditioning mattresses — essentially taking old ones, refurbishing them and selling them like new, which can spread the bugs into stores and homes. The legislation would also require separate transport of old and new mattresses. A mattress purchase often includes the removal of the old one, and several used and new mattresses mingling in a truck produce a bedbug free-for-all.
By Sara Kugler