WASHINGTON – A forgotten old nursery rhyme is having more meaning for Americans these days.
“Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
But they are biting in all 50 states as they haven’t bitten since the 1940s, say pest control companies, scientists and health officials. And, indeed, it is making sleep more difficult for Americans of all walks of life – from denizens of homeless shelters to those visiting the swankiest five-star hotels.
Outbreaks of bedbug infestations have been reported from coast to coast, north and south and among rich and poor. Experts attribute the plague largely to two factors: increased travel and the banning of DDT and other effective pesticides that virtually wiped out “Cimex lectularious,” the Latin name for the pest.
A November newsletter from Doctors for Disaster Preparedness made the link between the rise of bedbug infestations and the U.S. banning in 1972 of the potent pesticide DDT.
“No chemical in history has saved more lives than DDT, and few if any have a better safety record,” the organization decried.
Dozens of other experts made the connection with DDT and increased travel. The banning of DDT has also been linked worldwide to the major increase in malaria, which annually took the lives of millions before DDT nearly wiped out the mosquito-borne plague. Many countries have reintroduced the use of DDT to fight malaria.
Bedbugs are often confused with lice, fleas or scabies.
Bedbugs are small flat bugs about the size of an apple seed, growing up to one-quarter inch in adulthood. They resemble tiny cockroaches without wings and live in the crevices of beds. They generally only come out at night to feed on people’s blood with a painless bite. Signs of the bites are red, itchy welts on your skin in the morning.
Health officials say to look for dark red or black streaks of digested blood on the sheets along with a very distinctive, sweet smell which is the telltale sign of bedbug infestations.
A survey by Orkin Pest Control found reports of bedbug infestations increased 300 percent between 2000 and 2001, 70 percent between 2001 and 2002, and 70 percent between 2002 and 2003. The company said it had reports of infestations last year in 33 states.
In a statement, the company said, “We first started seeing [bedbugs] in hotels, but in the past year have also treated infestations in homes, apartments, college dormitories, condominiums, aircraft and cruise ships.”
Bedbugs can survive for up to a year lying in wait for the nice warm body of an unknowing traveler. Once discovered, they can be difficult for a hotel or cruise ship or homeowner to eliminate, requiring special insecticides and tools, not just a can of bug spray.
“Homeowners are staying in hotels, picking up bedbugs in their suitcases and bringing them home,” Cindy Mannes of the National Pest Management Association in Dunn Loring, Virginia, outside Washington, told the Washington Post.
One Boston mother reportedly threw out her children’s bunk beds and her own and asked her landlord to fumigate her apartment. When that didn’t end the rash of ugly bug bites on her children, she moved, leaving her possessions behind for fear they’d become infested. Bedbugs cost her $6,000.
According to dozens of experts, the bedbug had virtually disappeared from the United States during World War II, when the pesticide DDT was introduced. But the banning of DDT and other effective pesticides due to environmental concerns has spurred their return.
There are a range of treatments. At hotels, for example, Orkin uses high-temperature steam (heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit – about 100 degrees hotter than they can withstand) which instantly kills adults and their eggs.
The company recommends cleaning nine rooms at a time: the room where the complaint was lodged, the rooms on each side as well as the three rooms above and three rooms below. Headboards and bed frames are taken apart.
“This is one of the hottest bug issues in a generation,” said Michael Potter, a professor of urban entomology at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture in Lexington. “Bedbugs are going ballistic.”
Potter said that while bedbug infestations were common before World War II, the widespread use of DDT virtually eliminated them in some parts of the world.