Isthmus Newspaper, Madison, WI
Jay Rath
October 10th, 2013

To view this article as it appeared in the Isthmus Newspaper, please click here.

I’m sitting in a downtown coffee house across from a nattily dressed retiree. He’s wearing a crisp white button-down shirt and a green, maroon and ivory tie. He ticks off his points by number, often referring to documents in the thick stack of files he’s brought along.

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After just a few minutes, however, his well-organized thoughts start to wander. Gaps in conversation widen. His voice drops.

“These things made me profoundly suicidal,” he says. “I’m about ready to cry, now.”

He’s talking about, of all things, bugs. Specifically, bedbugs.

It’s an extreme reaction, which he blames in part on chemicals used to treat his infestation. But many who’ve had to deal with the blood-sucking nighttime invaders will sympathize. They’ll also understand why this Madison resident did not want to use his real name. We’ll call him Walter Stein.

Bedbugs are back in a big way, along with all the associated problems.

“We’re getting anxiety disorders and other things from people who have been through this,” says Phil Pellitteri, University of Wisconsin-Extension entomologist. “I’m not totally surprised. It does shake people to the roots.”

In July, Terminix pest control announced that bedbug infestations in Milwaukee jumped by 53% in the last year, the second-highest increase in the nation, after Seattle and before Las Vegas. Will Madison be far behind?

“Everybody is seeing an increase,” says Pellitteri. “This has been a national issue.”

It’s not just the bugs themselves; or the itchy bites that can rapidly accumulate on backs, arms and legs; or even the unwarranted social stigma. Effective extermination of bedbugs is difficult and expensive, as much as $1,200 per treatment for a one-bedroom apartment.

That’s what it costs for a single application of what exterminators call “thermal remediation,” the surest way to destroy an infestation. Over six months Stein had two thermal treatments, then a pesticide treatment, and then thermal again.

It was supposed to work the first time. He says he followed all the instructions for preparation provided by the pest-control company. The property manager, who had never had to deal with bedbugs before, was at first helpful but grew increasingly hostile as each extermination attempt failed. Stein finally had to move on Aug. 15 because he was not allowed to renew the lease at his fashionable lakeside complex. No reason was given. He doesn’t want his real name used because his new landlord knows none of this.

Stein had only a moderate infestation, but he says, “I’m still traumatized.” After a few weeks of fitful sleep, “you start seeing bedbugs everywhere. You get anxiety. You start feeling phantom bedbugs on you.”

“I always term this a psychological pest,” says Shane McCoy, technical training director for Sun Prairie-based Wil-Kil Pest Control. The firm covers all of the upper Midwest and frequently offers bedbug “boot camps” to interested groups, emphasizing prevention.

“Psychologically, it’s damaging,” he says. “We have people come in here, and they find out it’s bedbugs, and they start breaking down and crying.”

“Bedbugs are frustrating for both tenants and landlords because there are no simple or inexpensive solutions,” adds Charlie Breunig, volunteer housing counselor with Madison’s Tenant Resource Center. “Getting rid of bedbugs takes time even when tenants and landlords are working together, which isn’t always the case.”

Stein, who lives alone, has no idea how he got bedbugs. Experts agree that, locally, the most common way of introducing them is by bringing home used furniture from a thrift shop or the curb. Travel can also be a problem.

Stein did buy a mattress late last summer, but it was new and wrapped in plastic. By October, he noticed some strange insects in his apartment. He believed they were a kind of beetle. “I thought they came in out of the cold,” he says.

By January, he realized that his occasional bites were something more serious.

Equal-opportunity pest

Bedbugs don’t care if you’re rich or poor. All they care about is their only food. It’s blood — your blood. They typically come out to eat in the hours just before dawn. Some people have bedbugs and are never bothered by their bites. Some may have severe allergic reactions, including rashes. For most people, a bite is about half as painful as a bee sting but twice as itchy as a mosquito’s.

A single bug typically leaves three bites a night, in something of a straight line. Because they release a natural anesthetic when they feed, you may not feel the bites until a few days later. Bites and their itchiness can last longer than a week. Do the math: a few bugs a night, three bites each, night after night….

It’s possible, and even likely, to have bedbugs and never see them. Eggs and larvae are nearly impossible for a layperson to find with the naked eye. Adults are about the size of an apple seed, and they can take refuge in any crevice the thickness of a credit card. They hide in everything. The only sign that they’re visiting may be their feces: tiny specks that are so dark red from your blood that they may appear black against bed sheets, mattress edges or bed frames.

“One of the fascinating things about bedbug biology is how much these little buggers travel,” says Pellitteri.

They’ll use electrical conduit and plumbing lines to spread between rooms. It’s unlikely they’ll travel on people, but it’s possible. They’re more apt to hitch a ride on a visitor’s backpack or bag. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one dormitory outbreak is suspected to have started with bugs picked up from a campus library chair. (At the coffee house, Stein told me, “I’m sitting here in an upholstered chair, which I normally wouldn’t do.”) Nationally, restaurants and theaters are sometimes suspect.

Fool’s paradise

Bedbugs are both an old and new problem. “I think the earliest reference I saw was something like 1350 B.C. The Egyptians or something recorded that they were dealing with bedbugs,” says Pellitteri.

It’s likely that bedbugs evolved from a species that feeds on bats. When early humanity stopped living in caves, they left the bats behind, but the bugs came with them.

“It’s interesting that the Native Americans had no names for ‘bedbug’ because it didn’t exist in North America until the European settlers brought it,” says Pellitteri.

The pests were virtually eradicated in the 1940s, thanks to modern pesticides. But bedbugs evolved. They developed resistance. They surged back.

“Even five, six, seven years ago, we would do two [bedbug treatments] a week,” recalls McCoy. “And 10 years ago we wouldn’t do any. It was unheard of to have a bedbug problem. In fact, we’d never seen one.”

“I went from one [bedbug] case a year to, easily, 10 a week, and I don’t even see the tip of the iceberg,” says Pellitteri. “When I knew we started to get into the slippery slope was when it started showing up in apartment buildings, and I was talking to pest-control services doing two and three treatments. And they weren’t stopping it.”

The United States largely banned DDT in the 1970s because of the unintended ecological devastation it wreaked. But at one time it was a miracle cure for bedbugs.

“The figures tell us that pre-1940s, a third of the households in the United States had bedbugs,” says Pellitteri. “So DDT was really very magical. And even when they started to show some resistance to DDT, there were other chemicals. We stayed ahead of this thing for, what, 60, 70 years.”

In other words, we were living in a fool’s paradise. The current wave of bedbug infestation is merely a return to normality.

Heat kills

A common folk cure for bedbugs, adopted by Stein as he moved to his new home, is to wrap belongings in plastic and place them in storage, until the bugs die from lack of food. Twelve to 18 months is recommended.

One thing they’re susceptible to is heat. Sending clothes and bedding through the dryer on “high” will kill adults, nymphs and eggs. In fact, heat treatment of an entire apartment, all at once, is the best way to eradicate bedbugs, when used as part of a professional, comprehensive strategy. Some pest-control firms have special equipment that heats rooms to as much as 135 degrees Fahrenheit for six hours, killing all bedbug life stages. Residents must prepare for such “thermal remediation”; clutter should be minimized, and anything that might melt or easily catch fire, including candles, crayons and butane lighters, must be removed.

Professional-grade pesticides are sometimes used; exterminators who embrace comprehensive treatment use every tool available. “If you catch an infestation early, a couple of pesticide applications will normally take care of that, and heating is not necessary,” says Rick Freye, owner of Madison-based Professional Pest Control. Pellitteri notes, however, that if you’re dealing with a genetically resistant infestation, no amount of pesticide will help.

Diatomaceous earth, or “DE,” can be useful. It’s dust made from microscopic silica-skinned sea creatures known as diatoms. The tiny particles of DE are able to pierce bedbugs’ skin, slowly killing them. It’s especially useful as a preventive measure, spread very lightly across floors and dusted onto electrical outlets. It’s available at hardware and gardening stores, but it’s a dangerous inhalation hazard, so be sure to wear a good facemask and follow directions. Use only “food grade” DE.

Some exterminators recommend throwing out furniture that may be infested, particularly beds and mattresses, as Stein did. If you do so, mark or clearly label such items as infested, so others aren’t tempted to take them to their own residences.

For homeowners, replacing furniture adds to the financial burden of eradication. Pellitteri and other experts argue that it’s pointless; mattress and pillow cases made especially to contain bedbugs are sufficient to trap and starve them to death, though bed frames may need special attention, particularly if they’re made of wood.

There are many alternative remedies, easily found on the Internet: ultrasound generators and homemade cures that variously require Dawn dish detergent, baby oil, dry ice, Alka-Seltzer or Bounce fabric softener. None are effective means of eradication or even control.

Then there are the commercially available “organic” cures, often made from natural oils. “Many of these things are already registered as food additives,” notes Pellitteri, “so they do not have to go through the efficacy trials you do when you register a pesticide. If you can eat it, the FDA isn’t worried about people dying from it.”

But the Federal Trade Commission is concerned. Last year it filed deceptive advertising charges against CedarCide Industries, whose radio commercials aired extensively in Madison, particularly on talk programs.

You can also forget about using bug bombs, foggers and any other over-the-counter insecticides. They’re not only useless, they’re creating a public-health nightmare.

“We have a lot of people getting pesticide poisoning,” notes Pellitteri. “They go into the hardware store, buy whatever, spray everything. I swear they spray their kids half the time, when you hear these stories. We have real frustration because homeowners are the biggest abusers of pesticide; they never read the labels. So they do a whole bunch of things that make no sense. I understand. They’re desperate.”

Even professional-grade pesticides applied by pest-control companies can be problematic, according to Stein. He blames his former landlord’s exterminator for worsening his depression by aggressively using a pesticide that can cause neurological changes, particularly a reduction in dopamine.

“If there is a good thing about bedbugs, there are no documented scientific studies or evidence that there’s any disease transmission,” says Eric Olson, of Public Health Madison and Dane County.

But there is a mental-health toll, not only because of the creepy nature of nighttime bedbug feeding, but because of the assumption that infestations happen to people who are unclean.

“If you add the whole psychological trauma that goes along with bedbugs — I mean, people will get stigmatized,” says Olson.

Campus cures

If you are unlucky enough to get bedbugs, your best hope may be to live on the UW-Madison campus. University Housing has a comprehensive model eradication program.

“Most of the time when people bring something up, we don’t find bedbugs,” says Mike Kinderman, director of residence-hall facilities and associate director of housing. He says there were just two or cases in the residence halls last year.

When UW Housing suspects an infestation, University Health Services is notified. Traps are set and, if bedbugs are found, attempts are made to trace their source. Students are moved into temporary housing and are given towels and linens while their rooms receive thermal remediation. Any belongings they take along are thoroughly inspected.

“We have decided to go that route because there’s a lot of other people at risk if you don’t deal with it right away,” Kinderman says. “We are very aggressive with bedbugs and spend the money upfront knowing that a bedbug problem not treated aggressively can lead to huge costs and negative customer reviews.”

For those without such resources, it’s more difficult. In the city of Madison, landlords are financially responsible for extermination. A recent amendment to Wisconsin Senate Bill 179 would have made tenants financially responsible by default, but it was voted down in September.

In general, “the legal side of this is just a big mess, because it is not clear in most standard state lease laws who is responsible here,” says Pellitteri. “So typically what happens is the landlord blames the tenant, the tenant blames the landlord. Rarely can I point to where the source was. The legal problem is that if tenants fear they’re going to be forced to pay, they often don’t report. And if they don’t report, it’s like a fire. It just gets worse.”

The Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin, a landlord organization, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Practice prevention

How can you protect yourself? All the experts emphasize prevention. Don’t bring used furniture into your home. Check for dark specks on sheets, mattresses and bed frames. Freye, who cites travel as a leading cause of infestation, always checks beds and bedding while staying in hotels.

“The headboards are usually hung on the wall, so I normally lift the headboard off and check there, too,” he says. He also checks nightstands.

As for your luggage, Pellitteri advises putting it in your hotel bathtub. Freye agrees. “Bedbugs are usually not found in the bathroom,” he says. Or seal your belongings in plastic bags. When you get home, send your clothes through the dryer in high heat.

If you catch a suspected bug, the UW’s Insect Diagnostic Lab can help you identify it. Take a good photo or place the bug in rubbing alcohol, inside a tightly capped jar.

Pellitteri recommends informational videos at bedbugcentral.com but recommends seeking professional help. “Is there an occasional person who can do enough homework and work this out and think this through? Yes. For the most part, people will not. They don’t have the experience of where to treat, what to use, what works best in each situation.”

Nationally, McCoy suspects that what we need is a massive public-education campaign, emphasizing bedbug prevention. “I always keep thinking, ‘Have we peaked yet?'” he says. “And it keeps rising every year. My crystal ball tells me it will continue to rise until we have more awareness.”

As for Stein, he loves his new apartment and neighbors. But he can’t shake the fear of another bedbug infestation: “I’m so worried.”