Published: February 4th 2013, 12:21pm
Bed bugs are misunderstood.
"The fear is stoked with myth and misinformation, such as that they transmit infections, fly, leap tall buildings [and] are a sign of uncleanliness ... They're little vampires. They suck our blood and invade our castles."
To be fair, that last part is true. But according to Richard Pollack, Ph.D., when it comes to not letting the bed bugs bite, there's a lot we just don't know.
Pollack is the president and chief scientific officer of IdentifyUS, a Newton-based company specializing in the professional identification of pests, predominantly bed bugs, ticks and head lice.
Bed bugs have been making headlines again, on the rise in cities such as Chicago where treatments for the hungry insects' midnight snacking on their human hosts are higher than any other city in the U.S. Reports of infestations have become so alarming there that select aldermen are proposing an ordinance to fine landlords $1,000 should they not seek proper professional extermination at the first sign of the flat, wingless parasites.
In the realm of unwanted parasitic house guests (your in-laws notwithstanding), the potential presence of bed bugs in one's home often elicits revulsion treading the line somewhere between paranoia and hysteria. Part of this is because of reports like those coming out of Chicago now (There are bed bugs everywhere! Nobody is safe!); but a larger factor, simply put, is bed bugs are just gross--the thought of them helping themselves to your neck or forearm in the middle of the night enough to make your skin crawl.
To gain a better understanding of the insects intent on sharing our beds with us--and feasting on our blood in the process--I chatted with Pollack, who in addition to his role with IdentifyUS, is also a longtime instructor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
For starters, why are bed bugs so feared?
This is where Pollack offered the line above about bed bugs representing tiny insect vampires who suck our blood and "invade our castles." "That's sufficient to send a lot of folks off the deep end," he told me. It is an unsettling thought, bed bugs bingeing on our blood while we're most vulnerable, asleep and in the comfort of our own beds.
Do they do more damage to our health or spread more easily than other pests?
In the pantheon of modern day pests, bed bugs fall somewhere in the middle on the annoying/bad-for-us scale. "They're absolutely trivial when compared with mosquitoes, ticks, body lice, and some other pests of medical and public health significance," said Pollack. "They're far more annoying and burdensome than clothes moths and carpet beetles."
As to why and how quickly they can spread house to house or city to city, well, that's on us. "Most pests spread fairly easily thanks to our own antics and activities. Hence, we've ourselves to blame." Basically, humans transport bed bugs unknowingly from destination to destination, carelessly whisking them around in our used furniture, clothing and other belongings.
Is Boston historically a bad city for bed bugs? Why or why not?
"Boston bed bugs have a distinct New England accent. Some wear Red Sox hats, others Bruins jerseys," Pollack responded, likely rolling his eyes at my attempt to localize the issue. Not every creature, it would seem, is vying for a slice of Hub real estate. Any city with lots of people has the potential for more cases of bed bugs. Where they end up any given year is less predictable.
I've heard college towns are notoriously bad for bed bugs. True or false?
Here, Pollack conceded some truth. "Just think of the mass of suitcases, sofas, and other 'stuff' schlepped from far and wide," he said. "There are a heck of a lot of students in the Boston area, and late August / early September is like a bed bug convention here."
Used furniture, particularly bed frames and mattresses gleaned from low costs and high availability on Craigslist, tend to pose the greatest frequency of harboring bed bugs and their eggs, according to IdentifyUS.
In short, that beautiful suede recliner with the "For Sale" sign on the curb that seems too good to be true is probably just that.
What are some forms of prevention?
"Don't visit anyone else and don't allow anyone else to visit you," Pollack joked.
In seriousness, though, assume you're bringing back more than "fond memories" from travels near and far. Inspect your possessions. In your own home, keep things clean and keep clutter off the floor, as bed bugs prefer to nest in dark, enclosed areas. Folds and creases in the bed linens are prime possibilities, as are corners of mattresses and box springs. They may also dwell in the pleats of curtains, under loose wallpaper near the bed, in corners of desks and dressers, behind picture frames or among other items on the floor or around the room.
That month-old pizza box under your bed? Prime real estate.
If bed bugs are discovered in your apartment, what happens next? Extermination? Burn everything? Move out?
Do not panic. First and foremost, despite the horror stories (again with the propaganda), bed bugs are not known to transmit any infectious agents. All things being equal, they do suck your blood and secrete tiny traces of saliva under your skin, a nasty habit that thins your blood and can also lead to itching and infection. (The lesions do resemble those of other blood feeding insects, such as mosquitoes and fleas.)
Pollack suggests before you do anything else, you determine for certain that it's bed bugs you're dealing with here. Don't jump the gun and spray pesticides everywhere, burn all your belongings or hire a bed bug sniffing dog (those exist). "Obtaining an unbiased identification from an independent expert can save your sanity and preserve your savings," said Pollack.
You can send IdentifyUS live samples or pictures of the suspected culprit--more information on that here.
Pollack told me he'll get anywhere from zero to dozens of submissions for identification in a given day. Many are physical samples but users are trending more and more toward sending digital images from their smartphones. The turnaround can be incredibly fast this way, and more often that not, people's worst fears are rendered moot--only about a tenth of "bed bug" submissions are actually bed bugs.
"Sadly," said Pollack, "many submitters have come to me after they had already spent thousands on unnecessary pest control efforts."
The lesson in all this?
Bed bugs are, in fact, a bit misunderstood. They are not pleasant--far from it--and should you find yourself plagued with their presence it can be a costly and annoying process to clear them out. But more often that we know, that nasty bed bug lurking in our mattress is actually a beetle, or a cockroach, or a sunflower seed.
"A lot of folks who've used my services tell me that it was the best $20 they've ever spent," said Pollack.
I'd pay far more for piece of mind.
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