Bed bugs may not sound as frightening as a global flu pandemic, but the hungry bloodsuckers have already attacked hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting Americans while they slept.
Now they’re crawling into the crevices of Utah homes and feasting on the residents of the Beehive state. Salt Lake County has seen its bed bug complaints nearly double between 2007 and 2008, from hotels to homes.
“The only good thing you can say about bed bugs is they do not transmit disease,” said Diane Keay, a Salt Lake Valley Health Department supervisor. “The real problem seems to be horror.”
Humans are a bed bug’s main course. The nocturnal creatures often strike while the person is sleeping, leaving their victim with uncomfortable, itchy welts. Rich and poor are vulnerable: homeless shelters and home owners have the same enemy.
In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, bed bugs were commonly found in U.S. hotels, hospitals, theaters and trains, according to Michael Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky. But an alert public and aggressive chemical campaign proved highly successful. Insecticides and pesticides such as DDT, some of which were easily available at the drug store, decimated bed bug numbers.
“Anyone who had a bedbug problem could now have the tools to absolutely go to war,” he said.
In the late 1990s, for reasons that are not entirely clear, bed bug populations exploded in major urban areas across the world. Though questioned by some, a common explanation is the increase of international travel. Many bed bugs also seem to have developed a resistance to insecticides, making extermination costly and difficult. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules have restricted the use of some effective pesticides, Potter said.
The crisis sparked an April bed bug “summit” in Virginia, which drew the National Pest Management Association, the New Jersey Apartment Association, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture and many others.
“In the urban areas they seem to be on the march,” said Frank Carlsen, an environmental health scientist with the Weber-Morgan Health Department in Utah. “It’s going to take a lot of public education to stop them.”
Complaints to the agency are on the rise, though at nine last year the numbers remain small. Staff advise callers how to get rid of the pests. But bedbugs don’t appear to be everywhere in Utah — yet. The Southwest Utah Public Health Department has not seen a surge in numbers.
Lower income populations who may rely on used beds and furniture and be more transient can suffer, experts say.
About two-and-a-half years ago, homeless residents at The Rescue Mission of Salt Lake reported being bitten during their overnight stays. Soon staff realized it was a problem at other shelters as well.
“The challenge with bed bugs is they’re so tenacious,” said Chris Croswhite, the executive director. “They can crawl inside a wall and stay there for a year and come out and cause the problem all over again.”
The Mission replaced all its mattresses and continues to spray weekly, steps that have significantly reduced the problem. They plan a move to a new campus on the west side, and hope to leave the bed bugs behind.
Another downtown homeless shelter, The Road Home, struggled with the pests and spent nearly $300,000 purchasing new metal beds and mattresses to solve the problem.
“We were having people who didn’t want to stay here because of the bed bug problem,“ said Michelle Flynn, associate executive director at The Road Home.
Not anymore, both the Mission and the Road Home have seen record numbers of homeless in the past few months.
Yet Potter is not optimistic when it comes to bed bugs in America.
“There’s no reason to think this is not going to continue to get worse and worse,” he said, noting that a bed bug bite opens the door to secondary infection.
“We feel we’re sort of entitled to a vermin-free experience,” the entomologist said. “In this country people have gotten spoiled.”