Bedbugs staging dramatic comeback in the United States
Jason Webeck received a call last month to take his trained beagle to Pittsburgh International Airport for a luggage search.
The dog, Dino, wasn't searching for illegal substances, but rather an unwanted stowaway -- bedbugs.
Webeck runs Good Night, Sleep Tight, a bedbug detection service in Eighty-Four in Washington County. Dino is trained to sniff out bedbugs in homes, cars, college dorms, hotels, hospitals and even on a person's body.
While the passenger who wanted his luggage and clothes checked after a fellow traveler complained of bedbug bites was an unusual job for Webeck, his business is thriving.
Bedbugs are staging a dramatic comeback in the United States, according to experts. Pest-control companies reported bedbug calls have nearly tripled from a decade ago, according to a survey by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky.
The Northeast has been particularly hard-hit:
• In New York City, bedbugs burrowed into seats in a Times Square theater this month and temporarily closed Hollister, Victoria's Secret and other trendy stores in July.
• Four Ohio cities -- Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and Cleveland -- were ranked this week among the nation's top 15 most bedbug-infested cities by pest control company Terminix.
• In Philadelphia, a woman is suing a furniture store, claiming a couch she leased was infested with bedbugs and the store refused to take it back.
A spokeswoman for Orkin said it experienced a 300 percent increase in bedbug treatments in the Pittsburgh area from 2008 to 2009. It is projecting a 50 percent increase this year.
Still, Pittsburgh has far fewer incidents than other urban and suburban areas, statistics show.
The small, parasitic insects are similar to head lice and hide in tiny crevices. They feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals -- most often humans -- at night as they sleep.
Ken Robertson, Orkin's South Pittsburgh branch manager, said the pests haven't invaded only residential areas.
"They're popping up in very odd places," Robertson said. "It's really sort of shocking that we're starting to see them in retail stores and offices. The move into (stores and offices) is kind of alarming, because they are kind of spreading like wildfire."
The bugs were "basically eradicated" by the 1950s, said Bill Todaro, entomologist at the Allegheny County Health Department.
National experts say overuse of pesticides, a failure to recognize the link between humans and bedbugs, and increased international travel have converged to bring them back with a vengeance.
The problem caught the attention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency, which this month released a joint statement "to highlight emerging public health issues associated with bedbugs in communities throughout the United States."
Although the exact cause is not known, "experts suspect the resurgence is associated with increased resistance of bedbugs to available pesticides, greater international and domestic travel, lack of knowledge regarding control of bedbugs due to their prolonged absence, and the continuing decline or elimination of effective pest control programs at state and local public health agencies."
Although no Western Pennsylvania city was on the Terminix list, the Pittsburgh region is not in the clear, Todaro said.
"We've got them as bad as anybody," he said. "Five to 10 years ago, I'd get one call (per year about bedbug infestations). Five years ago, I'd get five. Three years ago, I'd get five bedbug calls a month, and now I'm getting about five calls a day."
In State College, a group of landlords, pest management professionals and entomologists formed the Centre Region Bed Bug Coalition to educate themselves and others on how to effectively reduce bedbug populations, according to Richard Cooper, a research entomologist and vice president of the group.
A community bedbug seminar last month drew participants from across the state. Among them were Westmoreland County Housing Authority administrators, who operate more than 2,000 units.
Executive Director Michael Washowich said while some units have had minor bedbug problems, he and others attended the seminar with the goal of preventing full-fledged infestations. The managers' education on how the bugs behave and how to get rid of them will "trickle down" to the residents to help prevent future cases, he said.
The fact that bedbugs exist shouldn't surprise anyone, Cooper said.
"Everybody wants to know the reason why (bedbugs are back), but the truth of the matter is nobody really knows why," Cooper said. "I think that the American public has to get past the question, 'Why do we think this happened?' and get to the question about what we can do about it. I think (ignorance) is a part of the reason why it spreads. The fact that it is news to people is a problem in itself."
Early detection is key, experts say.
For Webeck and Dino, that has meant their five or six jobs a month increased fourfold during the past year.
On a bedbug search, Webeck walks Dino, a "walking nose" who is 95 percent accurate, through each room of the residence or hotel. It takes the beagle an average of about three minutes to check a room. If Dino detects bedbugs, he scratches the location where the smell is strongest.
After the search, Webeck fills out a report for the client, listing spots where bedbugs were detected and giving tips on how to contain the pests, such as using traps and encasements, while they wait for professionals to eradicate the problem.
While bedbugs don't carry diseases, Todaro said the mental anguish of dealing with an infestation can be severe. The misconception that bedbugs breed only in poverty and filth causes people to feel embarrassed.
The expense of multiple extermination treatments adds to the stress, Cooper said.
Pest control companies reported that 99 percent of their clients who have had bedbugs were "upset and concerned," according to the National Pest Management Association survey.
Hotels and other businesses deal with the added toll of negative publicity.