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Resurgent bedbugs on the prowl in Alaska

Insect not known to carry disease, but their bite leaves an itchy sore

Posted: Friday, November 09, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The lesson: Don't ask if you really don't want to know.

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The question: What's new in pest control these days?

"Bedbugs," said Ryan Bruffett, service manager for American Pest Management, the largest vermin annihilation company in the state. "Bedbugs are huge right now. They're everywhere."

By that he means Alaska too. Your home state. And they're out for blood.

If you're determined not to be a donor, you may never think of travel, or even house guests, in quite the same way.

Bedbugs were virtually eradicated in this country starting around World War II by the use of DDT, which was banned in 1972. After a half century of lying low, these nocturnal bloodsuckers have been making news across the nation lately. Traumatized guests bitten in swanky hotel rooms are filing lawsuits to the tune of several million dollars. And one apartment building in Cincinnati was so infested, some residents took to sleeping out on the sidewalk.

Nothing like that here. But still.

Yuck.

"Ten years ago, we maybe got a bedbug call a month," said Larry Jones, co-founder of American Pest Management, which has seven offices from Barrow to Juneau. "We're getting more than that a day now."

Ken Perry, owner of Paratex Pied Piper, hasn't seen that dramatic an increase, but "it's definitely up."

"They don't present a public health threat," Greg Wilkinson, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, assures us. "They're not known to carry disease."

What they are, he said, is a nuisance.

Although health officials are not getting bedbug calls, those in the eradication trenches are being called to hotels, motels, fish camps, dormitories and other commercial facilities around the state, as well as apartments and homes, for pre-emptive strikes and damage control. And Jones is giving presentations to make business owners and managers aware of the potential problem. He also teaches their housekeeping staffs how to look for signs.

Naturally, the return of the bedbug is not a fun topic for those in the hotel/motel industry. But members of the Alaska Hotel and Lodging Association are well aware of the problem and taking preventative measures, from protective mattress covers to monitoring programs, according to Karen Rogina, president and CEO.

This bedbug resurgence is largely attributed to an increasingly transient population and rise in international travel.

"When you go to a hotel room and open your luggage, you're subject to whatever that hotel has," Jones said. "So if they've got bedbugs, you're going to be taking home bedbugs. They're going to get in your suitcase, they're going to get in your purse."

"It's not a matter of being slovenly," Wilkinson said. "They show up in dumps, they show up in five-star hotels. They travel all over the country. They're great little hitchhikers."

Jones figures about 35 percent of his bedbug jobs are in private residences, typically of people who travel. Or people whose house guests do.

"It goes both ways. You can go and get them, or you can have them brought to you."

About the size of an apple seed, bedbugs are reddish brown, oval shaped and flat-bodied - unless they're all plumped up after a meal. During the day, they hide in mattress seams, on bed frames, behind headboards and in sundry other cracks and crevices.

At night, lights out is like a dinner bell for these parasites.

"They can travel pretty fast," Jones said. "Unbelievably fast."

Waking up to red bumps could mean you've shared your bed with bugs, although not everyone reacts to the bites right away, or even at all.

Kim Rogers of Fairbanks reacted. She woke up in a room in Thailand with itchy red bites across her thighs, which she assumed were the work of bedbugs. She assumed enough to mention them in her wedding vows as she spoke of the highs and lows of travel with her now-husband, David Cory.

"From lavish accommodations to a bedbug-infested guest house. ..."

Afterward, her brother-in-law commented that this was the first wedding ceremony he'd ever attended where the topic of bedbugs came up.

Besides bumps, other clues are tiny dark spots on the sheets or along mattress piping and other bedbug hideouts.

"Fecal material," as Jones calls it.

Disgusting is right.

This bedbug situation caught the country off guard.

"Until 2000, there were almost no chemicals labeled to spray for bedbugs," Jones said. "It took industry almost three years to re-suit up."

There are now nontoxic monitoring systems and several EPA-approved insecticides available for home and commercial use. There are even bedbug-sniffing dogs. Home remedies, like tossing infested items into a freezer for several days, can help. Frenetic cleaning too. But if you nail the adults and miss the eggs, you'll be beaucoup in newborn bedbugs two weeks later.

On commercial jobs, Jones urges clients to put infested rooms in lockdown for two weeks. His technicians would then supervise a thorough cleaning, from bedding to carpets, drapes, even pictures on the wall. In some cases, mattresses need to be tossed.

Depending on the room - its furnishings and other potential hideouts - technicians would fog, spray or dust with insecticides, then return two weeks later for any newly hatched bugs.

Although most chemicals in the pest-control arsenal are safe for humans within two hours of application, Jones said, he recommends people stay away for 24.

Now that bedbugs are back, checking into a hotel as the spouse of a pest control man can't be a whole lot of fun these days.

"My wife, the first thing she does is pull the sheets off the mattress," Jones says. "She'll slide the mattress back and look at the box spring, slide the box spring back and look at the frame. If she doesn't find anything, well then, we're good for that room.

"If we find blood on the mattress, if we find fecal material, if we find live or dead insects, we're out of there."



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