In April 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a summit to address a developing pest problem—bed bugs in homes and other buildings. This first ever National Bed Bug Summit was held under the auspices of EPA’s Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee.
Bed bug infestations have grown at a steady clip over the last handful of years. Frequent international travel and hotel stays have helped bed bugs to make a comeback after near extinction in the U.S. The bugs find their way into suitcases and end up being carried home here to the States.
In a follow up on this topic, TFM spoke with an expert from Orkin, Inc. who attended the EPA Summit in April. Ron Harrison, Entomologist, Ph.D., is director of technical services for Orkin, Inc.
TFM: Before this most recent resurgence, in what types of settings were bed bugs most often a problem?
Harrison: About seven years ago, bed bugs were little more than a bedtime nursery rhyme in the U.S. In international locations, however, bed bugs were an established presence, especially in hostels with high volumes of travelers coming and going daily. The resilient nature of bed bugs combined with the potential high costs associated with eradicating the pests made low-end housing a key target as well.
TFM: When did this most recent resurgence of bed bug infestations begin? What have you found to be the cause(s) of this resurgence?
Harrison: The bed bug resurgence began around 2002 or 2003. We attribute it to an increase in international travel, which in turn increased the potential for bed bug migration. In addition, stronger chemical treatments previously employed to keep the problem under control are no longer permitted. For instance, DDT—a highly effective, yet highly toxic chemical—was formerly used to help manage bed bugs. Because it and other chemicals like it were banned due to health and environmental concerns, and the industry has moved from blanket treatments to targeted applications, keeping bed bugs at bay is an increasing challenge.
TFM: How is this current resurgence different from in the past in terms of the types of facilities and places within those facilities being affected?
Harrison: The current resurgence is actually very similar to past bed bug appearances. However, since the pest had been gone for such a long time, people were not prepared for its reemergence and had little awareness how difficult it is to eradicate bed bugs. This unfamiliarity allowed bed bugs to spread quickly, and through more than just hotels. Now bed bugs can be found in virtually any commercial facility.
TFM: What threats to personal comfort and safety do bed bugs pose to facility occupants today? What threats do they pose to property?
Harrison: Bed bugs are not known to transmit disease, nor can they damage property. Overall, they present little to no health risks to humans. If bitten, some victims will experience minor to moderate skin irritation in the form of small, red bumps. For the most part, bed bugs are nothing more than a headache for facility managers.
TFM: How can a facility manager identify a bed bug infestation?
Harrison: About the size of an apple seed, bed bugs are flat and oval shaped. After feeding, typically on human blood, the pest will turn a reddish color from its normal brown. Since most bed bug activity takes place at night, though, facility managers might have more luck identifying the small, rust colored stains bed bugs leave behind.
Knowing the signs of bed bugs is extremely important for facility mangers since an undetected infestation can create a larger problem. In just six months, 40 adult bed bugs can generate a population of nearly 6,000.
TFM: A March 2009 article in Infection Control Today stated that “bed bugs are extremely difficult to eradicate. No evidence-based interventions to eradicate bed bugs or prevent bites were identified. Pesticide control of bed bugs is complicated by insecticide resistance, lack of effective products, and health concerns about spraying mattresses with pesticides.” With this statement in mind, what do you recommend facility managers do if they do have a problem with bed bugs?
Harrison: The facts are the facts. Bed bugs, unfortunately, are extremely difficult to eradicate. But that doesn’t mean facility managers should give up hope if they find an infestation in their facility.
We recommend that companies conduct regular inspections for bed bugs, checking areas that offer harborage close to hosts including beds, soft furniture, behind pictures, and even around wall outlets. But, since bed bugs can be difficult to prevent in any facility, the best thing a facility manager can do if they find evidence of the pest is to immediately call a pest management provider. Addressing the issue as soon as possible can keep the pest from spreading or reproducing.
TFM: As it relates to the concerns of facility managers in hospitality and other public facilities being affected by bed bugs, can you provide insight into the discussion that occurred at the EPA National Bed Bug Summit in April 2009? What have been the developments in this realm since?
Harrison: The EPA and National Pest Management Association hosted the National Bed Bug Summit to discuss the state of the bed bug problem across the country and share ideas for how to address them. Professionals from several industries debated the issue and came to a few conclusions.
There are many unanswered questions about bed bugs since they have not been aggressively studied since the middle of the last century. This lack of information has led to widespread speculation, and it is the duty of the industry to set them straight.
For now, evidence regarding the health risks of bed bugs is inconclusive. At this time, there is no proof that bed bugs actively transmit pathogens to humans. Even though they don’t transmit disease, bed bugs can still be a health risk. In extreme cases, bites can lead to serious medical reactions. Bed bugs have also been linked to respiratory issues and sleep deprivation. For these reasons, bed bugs could be viewed as more of a public health concern.
Bed bugs will continue to be a challenge and one that the industry is working together to resolve. I suggest facility managers stay informed and work closely with building occupants to monitor facilities. Partnership is a key element to keeping bed bug issues from becoming a nightmare.
Questions for Dr. Harrison on this topic can be submitted via the comments section below.