Invasion of the bedbugs - Page 2

How we dealt with these disgusting little bloodsuckers; and why we still fear stigma and our landlord

Rachel Carson's landmark book exposing DDT, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962), helped launch the modern environmental movement. Most uses of the chemical were later banned in the U.S. and other countries, even though it meant finding new ways to keep our bugs under control.

Less toxic sprays were developed after DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. They worked on roaches and other pests, but what exterminators didn't know at that time was that the new chemicals weren't doing much to the bedbug diaspora that was still thriving in remote parts of America and the world. And these little bastards were nothing to mess with.

"These critters had been hammered so hard that, by the 1980s, they were growing impervious to any insecticide on the market," said Michael Potter, an entomology professor at The University of Kentucky and former national technical director for Orkin. "But nobody really noticed because most of these bugs were far away."

In addition to rural parts of the United States, bedbugs could still be found in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa. But Potter rejects the theory that increased travel and immigration are entirely to blame for the global resurgence, as some scientists speculate. "It's not like we just started flying 10 years ago," he said.

Potter concedes that population movement has a lot to do with the issue, but said that blaming travelers and immigrants ignores certain facts and doesn't quite explain why bedbugs are coming back in such large numbers. The truth is that bedbugs never really went away. Pockets of extremely resistant survivor cells simply laid low until their offspring could flourish once again. It didn't take long for that to happen.

"The thing about chemicals is that they only work for a given amount of time," Agurto said. "Everything develops a tolerance after a while." No matter. The commercial use of carbamates and other organophosphates, the classes of insecticides that replaced DDT, were soon restricted in the U.S. after they, too, exhibited nasty environmental side-effects.

After that, pest control managers were forced to switch to pyrethroid-based insecticides — which a bedbug could go swimming in, Potter said — and preventive measures like steam-cleaning, vacuuming, and bait. These methods targeted cockroaches and other pests, but they essentially allowed bedbugs to thrive in a chemical-free paradise. This was in the early 1990s and, according to Potter and Agurto, it's probably no coincidence that the first major infestations in American cities came to light soon after. By the end of the century, a few years after DDT was restricted to malaria zones worldwide, bedbugs were becoming a problem in the eastern United States. By 2001, they had become a hot news topic in cities in America and around the world.

The bedbug resurgence in New York City has been covered extensively by The New York Times, starting in 2001 with an article about hotels and hostels titled "Bedbugs; Sleeping with the Enemy." Subsequent reports tracked the spread of infestations through homeless shelters, SROs, and eventually into condos, apartments, and houses. But the tiny vampires aren't stopping there.

Bedbugs, once thought of as a byproduct of poverty, are moving up in the world. "We're seeing them now in upscale condos and private residencies in the best neighborhoods in town," Agurto said. "Places where people never imagined they'd have to deal with this kind of thing." But that's not where the infestations stop either, not in New York and probably not here.

They've even infiltrated the headquarters of large corporations. One of the latest infestations of this sort, at the Penguin Group in Manhattan, made headlines recently when employees of the publishing company were sent home while the building underwent treatment.