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A bedbug epidemic bites New York

An epidemic of bedbugs in the Big Apple has brought panic, revulsion and a nasty little rash to rich and poor alike. Can the city cope

Tim Teeman

At first May thought that her husband had heat rash. “We were staying at a smart hotel in Cape Cod. Then I developed these hive-like welts on my back and legs.” May (not her real name; she is terrified of giving me that) is middle class, in her late fifties and lives on the Upper West Side, New York, in a well-maintained four-room apartment. When she and her husband returned to the city, one doctor prescribed antihistamines, surmising the couple had reacted to shellfish. She called a dermatologist. “He took one look and said, ‘You both have bedbug bites’. My husband turned our mattress over and we saw them. That’s when — no joke, no exaggeration, however ridiculous it may sound — our nightmare began.”

The infestation would last five months and cost May and her husband $15,000 (£10,200) to treat.

The cockroach has scuttled in retreat. Bedbugs have become New York, indeed America’s, latest bug noire. These tiny, yellowish creatures (which grow to 4-5mm long), fiendishly difficult to eradicate and understand, have become an obsession for landlords, renters, pest-control experts and scientists. Why do they feed so hungrily on human blood? Why have they proliferated? Why are they so hardy? How can you eradicate them?

“Don’t let the bedbugs bite” now has a particularly hollow ring to it: we are almost powerless to stop them. There has been a 71 per cent increase in bedbug infestations since 2001, according to the US National Pest Management Association. In 2004, there were a reported 537 complaints and 82 “violations” (verified infestations) for bedbugs in New York; in 2009, there were 10,985 complaints and 4,084 verified infestations. “That’s just the reported cases,” says Jeremy Ecker, of Bed Bug Inspectors, a firm that uses two specially trained dogs to sniff out the bugs in apartments before advising occupants and pest exterminators on the best action. “The problem is everywhere, it’s growing and it’s mostly invisible because of people’s embarrassment. People are too ashamed to say anything. If they admit to having bedbugs they’re frightened of losing their apartment, of being asked not to go into work, of getting rid of their possessions. We see people in extreme distress.”

May says: “We were terrified of our landlord finding out. He could have used it to throw us out or make life difficult.” Landlords also embrace ignorance if they find out about an infestation, wary of accepting the costly responsibility of tackling bedbugs that have colonised an entire building, or of frightening off potential renters. May describes five months of hell: from seeing the blackish blotches (her and her husband’s dried blood and/or bedbug faeces) on the mattress, then constant vacuuming and washing of laundry and clothing, bagging up clothes and household items, vacuuming books, picture frames, wall sockets, throwing furniture and possessions away, sleeping on an air mattress in clothes she would immediately bag up the next morning for laundry . . .

A female bedbug (official name Cimex lectularius) can reproduce 400 offspring so this was not an hysterical overreaction: to eradicate bedbugs requires ruthless planning, “even before the exterminators come in”, May says.

It seems laughable that the hokey-sounding bedbug could cause such havoc — and indeed, a spokeswoman for New York City’s Health Department says: “Anyone who has had an infestation knows that it can stressful and unpleasant but while bedbugs are a nuisance, they do not present a health risk or spread disease.”

But they are far from dismissable creatures, according to those who have suffered them and the scientists researching them. “It’s a plague, an epidemic,” says a National Pest Management Association spokeswoman — and although her organisation represents pest exterminators this is not a fear-generating marketing campaign.

“It would not be extreme or hysterical to call this a pandemic,” says Tim McCoy, a bedbug research scientist at Virginia Tech University. “We haven’t reached the halfway point in bedbug numbers, they’re still on the rise.”

They show no respect, says Ecker, of class or creed: “We’ve inspected the fanciest apartments on the Upper East Side and one-room studios downtown. Doesn’t matter how big or clean or small or dirty your place is, bedbugs will make themselves at home.”

Bedbug blogs simmer with debate, advice and commiseration. And they have become a political issue. Michael Bloomberg, New York’s Mayor, has approved the creation of a bedbug “advisory board” to “evaluate, study, identify and develop appropriate strategies” against the blood-sucking menace.

Earlier this month Linda B. Rosenthal, a New York State Assembly member for the Upper East Side and Hell’s Kitchen districts, renewed her demand for legislation that would force building owners to disclose a five-year history of bedbug infestations to renters. She also proposed the city offer a tax credit of up to $750 per person to those whose homes have been affected by bedbugs. “The whole city is afflicted,” says Rosenthal says. “The cost of dealing with bed bugs is exorbitant and while $750 won’t cover it, it will help. It would be much better if the health department put out clear advice on how to rid an entire building of bedbugs, rather than leaving to it individual landlords.”

The problem is about to become international (it is already, but under-publicised). Experts agree that the prime method of bedbug transmission is travel: you go somewhere —like May to a hotel — sleep on an infested bed and pass the bugs on. Bedbugs also nestle in clothing and suitcases. Experts are split on whether they “jump” from person to person on public transport. But they can live on train and cinema seats, on furniture, and take over buildings by burrowing in crevices, nooks and crannies.

New York and other metropolitan centres are bedbug paradises: high populations, high numbers of apartments, people always on the move. Bedbug infestations in London and the Midlands have increased threefold in the past decade. The National Pest Management Association will soon publish a report revealing bedbug infestation figures across the US — and also some choice international findings: 90 per cent of pest-control companies it surveyed in Europe had dealt with bedbug infestations, a spokeswoman reveals.

When it comes to their vampiric feeding, Tim McCoy —who like Jeremy Ecker, lets them sup his blood for research —notes that sometimes you can feel them, sometimes not. But, he says, they scent people emitting CO2 and heat and scuttle from up to 15ft feet away for their grub. The most horrible and noticeable thing about a fully grown, fully fed bedbug is that it is bright red, after drinking the blood of its human host.

Some, such as McCoy, do not react to the bites; many others, such as May and her husband, do. “The bedbugs seemed to congregate near the bed, the couch, the netted seating on the office chairs,” she says. “You imagined them crawling on you. I saw one on my husband’s back. We tried to exterminate them ourselves and realised we couldn’t.”

Forget the many products on the market or exterminators making claims of being able to turf them out of your house easily and cheaply. The only effective treatment, McCoy says, is a series of expensive, extreme-heat treatments — at around 49C (120F) — administered by expert exterminators. Despite calls for extreme pesticides such as DDT and Propoxur to be relegalised, McCoy thinks both may prove ineffectual. “Use the wrong chemicals in the wrong way and you could damage yourself and your home.”

“It took me so long to get back into my own bed,” says May says. “We are clean, normal people — and this, emotionally, took us to the brink. Living the way we did, having to rid ourselves of things, clean, keep it secret: this was as bad as going through divorce, losing a job. We are ordinary, middle-class New Yorkers. When it was over it was like, ‘Can we come out of the air-raid shelter now?’”

For the moment, the scientific mystery of bedbugs’ fortitude endures. McCoy says that the pest’s level of resistance “is off the charts. Spray the most extreme chemical on them and they topple over as if they’re giggling, then they get up again. We also don’t know why they can go so long — two months — without a blood meal, or how they find their way back to their host.”

The biggest mystery is the origin of this pandemic. The bedbug was all but eradicated in the US by the 1950s with the use of strong pesticides. “We think travel to and from the Third World bought them back to the US; then the use of softer treatments (such as against the flea) may have helped them to flourish,” McCoy says. “Other theories are unproveable but, for example, we’ve seen them on the walls of organic-reared chicken sheds. Some foreign workers are married to other foreign workers in hotels and, well, is that how they got into hotels? We don’t know.”

The bedbug isn’t dangerous to human health, so US bodies such as the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health won’t fund research, McCoy says. He and May — scientist and sufferer — both warn: remain vigilant. They check the headboards of the hotel beds they sleep in, lift mattresses, shine torchlights into crevices, and vacuum those crevices. For two years after her infestation, May took a magnifying glass to check each dot and speck in her apartment: “It was always something else, but I was wounded. I know it sounds crazy. I’m not, and I’m not alone.”

McCoy says we should remember that “it is just a bug, there is no quick-fix and it will be expensive, but you can deal with it”. He is sure of one thing: “One day we will find a way of understanding and dealing with bedbugs. Then the cockroach will rise again.”