Home Invaders

Bedbugs// They are creepy and crawly and not just part of an old bedtime saying. Once they set up shop, these bloodsuckers are almost impossible to eliminate

September 15, 2006|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Shortly after Sheila Goldacker moved into an apartment in Nottingham, she woke up feeling itchy. Her arms, back and stomach were dotted with red spots. Her sheets, she noticed as she leaned in to fix the bed, were speckled.

Goldacker ripped off the sheets and discovered a scene straight from a horror film: her mattress was crawling with tiny brown bugs.

"At that point I freaked out," said the 45-year-old legal secretary. "I get itchy every time I talk about it."

Goldacker had bedbugs, a pest once nearly eradicated in the United States. The recent comeback across the country has left exterminators scratching their heads and Americans scratching everything else.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about bedbugs in Friday's Health & Science section incorrectly attributed a quotation to Christine Garcia, manager of residential facilities at the University of Maryland, College Park. The quotation should have been attributed to David Hawley, a manager for Capstone Development Corp., a private contractor that owns and manages dormitories on the College Park campus. The Sun regrets the errors.

The bloodsucking insects have increasingly set up housekeeping in apartment complexes, private homes, college dorms and hotels, experts said. In Baltimore, for example, exterminators report the number of infestations has increased exponentially in the past five years.

Until lately, most people only spoke about the parasitic pests when wishing children goodnight. "Sleep tight," says the familiar rhyme, "and don't let the bedbugs bite."

A common nuisance through the early part of the last century, bedbugs were nearly eliminated in the United States in the 1950s by strong pesticides such as DDT. But the chemicals that once killed bedbugs have been banned as unsafe. No highly effective treatments have been developed, entomologists and exterminators say.

"Put your money on the bugs," said Jay Nixon, president of American Pest Management in Takoma Park. "I don't think we've hit the peak yet."

So why bedbugs and why now? Blame globalization. In many parts of the world, bedbugs continued their bloodsucking ways as their cousins in the developed world were nearly wiped out. With increased immigration and international travel, bedbugs have latched onto luggage and indulged their wanderlust.

Home Paramount, a pest control company, has been handling about a dozen bedbug cases a month in the area, primarily at hotels, said sales director Brad Chalk.

Jim Webster, a manager with the regional office of Terminix, said that he has noticed a sharp uptick in cases. The exterminator treated nearly 100 bedbug cases in Baltimore this summer, including five in hotels, two of which were high-end, he said.

But there are no guarantees. "They're almost nearly impossible to treat," Webster said. "We can't honestly guarantee that the problem is not going to recur."

Officials at two Maryland colleges are keeping their fingers crossed that bedbugs will not come back to school this fall. In the spring semester, students discovered bedbugs in dorms at McDaniel College and the University of Maryland, College Park.

The reason that bedbugs are so hard to eradicate may have as much to do with their favorite food as well as changes in pesticide use. Since they feed on blood, bedbugs don't fall for the baits and traps that exterminators use for insect pests such as ants and roaches.

They are also resistant to dry-residue pesticides because their feet are shaped in a way that they don't pick up much of the residue and carry it back to their nests. They can hide in hard-to-get-to spots and survive for months without feeding.

The bedbugs found in temperate regions such as Maryland are small, wingless insects of the species Cimex lectularius. They are related to other bloodsucking bugs in the family Cimicidae that live on birds and bats.

Smaller than a pencil eraser and flat when not engorged with blood, bedbugs can shimmy into cracks as thin as a fingernail.

They snuggle inside mattresses and sofas, lounge in light switches and picture frames, and hang out in dresser drawers and clothing, said entomologist Larry Pinto of Pinto and Associates.

Although bedbugs are not known to carry disease, they are not pleasant bedfellows. At night, they emerge from hiding places and pierce the skin of sleeping victims with their beak-like mouths. The bugs use sucking mouth parts to drink blood. After three to 10 minutes, they lurch off, engorged, said Michael Raupp, a University of Maryland entomologist. Often a single bedbug will sip from several spots, like a teenager foraging in the kitchen.

In the morning, people awake to clusters of rosy welts on exposed patches of skin. The inflammation is a reaction the bugs' saliva, which contains an anticoagulant that keeps hosts' blood flowing during the meal. The more the bites are scratched, the more they itch.

Continuing problem

After Goldacker awoke to find bedbugs last spring in her apartment in the White Marsh area, neighbors told her that an adjacent unit had had an infestation that might be spreading, she said. After contacting the rental office and an exterminator, Goldacker washed all of her clothes and threw away her mattress, bed linens and most of her furniture, she said.

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