The American way of life is facing a new threat, one as profound as climate change or pandemic flu.
OK, that's a bit hysterical. But without DDT and the other now-banned pesticides that kept bedbugs in check for more than 50 years, the United States is as vulnerable as parts of the world where the insects remain a plague.
From New York to Los Angeles, and everywhere in between, these apple-seed-size vampires are spoiling sleep, vacations, and the bottom line of just about every business except pest control. Not just hotels and apartments, but nursing homes, schools, churches, movie theaters, cruise ships, subways, fire stations - in Manhattan, even such tony retailers as Victoria's Secret - have struggled to vanquish the vermin.
"This is the most difficult, challenging pest problem of our generation," University of Kentucky entomologist Mike Potter declared in April at the Environmental Protection Agency's first-ever National Bed Bug Summit.
Getting rid of bedbugs is costly, complex, and arduous. But ignoring them - and their intensely itchy, icky, intimate bites - is about as easy as ignoring the Internal Revenue Service.
Just ask the IRS. To the chagrin of the federal tax-collection agency, its Northeast Philadelphia campus has had to battle the bloodsuckers.
"Upon being made aware of the presence of bedbugs," IRS spokesman Mike Hanson wrote in a terse e-mail, "IRS leadership implemented actions to remove these insects."
Not according to Brian Rudolph, head of the union chapter that represents the 4,000 employees who work at the Roosevelt Boulevard campus. After eight months, he said, the place is still bugged.
How can a creature that doesn't fly, jump, or (thankfully) transmit any known disease be so formidable?
It's simple, said David Manos, assistant housing director at Pennsylvania State University, where he has debugged 22 dorm rooms since the first dumbfounding infestation in 2006: "They're cryptic, prolific, durable, and hitchhikers."
A newly infested mattress may appear pristine, so the lack of telltale signs - molted exoskeletons, fecal stains, burped blood - is no reassurance.
Bedbugs can survive a year without food - namely, human blood - and they will go on the crawl for it if you switch beds.
A single female can lay several hundred eggs during her year of life - the egg sacs are transparent, stick to anything, and are impervious to available pesticides - and each of those offspring can reproduce within a few months.
Bedbugs feed at night - unless you sleep during the day.
No wonder Cimex lectularius has been transforming the extermination business.
"We quarantine the room. We want to treat everything as if it has a bedbug in it or on it," Manos said.
Although pesticides are still an important part of the arsenal, the big new weapon is heat. At 120 degrees, research has shown, adults, nymphs, and, importantly, eggs are cooked in a matter of minutes.
Thus, the first step toward eradication is drying clothes and linens on high heat, then sealing everything in plastic bags or bins. (Now you know why those glum-looking people at the self-service laundry were drying but not washing 50 bags of clothes.)
After that, strategies vary.
"I have a big heat truck. I pack the bed and furniture into the truck," said Marty Overline of Aardvark Pest Management in Philadelphia.
Manos encloses the furniture with panels of Styrofoam insulation, then turns the corral into a bug oven with oil heaters and box fans.
A few companies, such as Cooper Pest Solutions in Lawrenceville, N.J., do this on a vast scale, tackling multistory buildings by hauling in big generators that produce furnacelike BTUs.
The other important new weapon against bedbugs is adorable: dogs.
Specially trained canines can detect a single live bug or egg with 96 percent accuracy, according to the entomology researchers at Florida Canine Academy.
The cost of a typical "integrated" treatment? A two-bedroom apartment can run $800 to $2,000, exterminators say. And that doesn't include such investments as mattress encasements, bed-leg bug traps, and portable heating devices for treating backpacks and suitcases.
"Unfortunately, bedbug treatment is very expensive," said entomologist Jeff White, host of Bed Bug Central TV, a feature of bedbugcentral.com, one of many new websites devoted to bedbug information, products, services, and tales of anguish.
Haddonfield native Graig Janssen, 25, moved to the Big Apple just as it was becoming the bedbug capital of the nation.
Over the last six years, while he got his degree at Columbia University and launched a career as an audio engineer, bedbug complaints soared from 537 to 12,768.
Not including his.
Janssen was oblivious to the bugs in his Prospect Heights apartment about a year ago. In addition to having poor eyesight, he is among the estimated 30 percent of people who have no reaction to the bites.
By the time an overnight guest developed itchy welts, Janssen had a big problem.
"I got my landlord involved and tried to get him to pay for the extermination," Janssen recalled.
Bedbugs have become a thorny issue for the rental-housing industry, and some landlords are now adding extermination provisos to leases, said Pamela Bennett, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Philadelphia.
But many landlords, including Janssen's, do too little, too late. Janssen - and his upset parents - tried to deal with the infestation, but soon discovered that their efforts weren't enough. When bugs get into a complex, united the inhabitants stand, divided they fall prey.
"There were four floors with 16 apartments," he recalled. "It really takes a coordinated effort to get rid of bedbugs, but there was no semblance of teamwork."
Last month, New York's City Council committed $500,000 to create a Web-based bedbug "portal" (not the best word choice) to provide information and help to businesses and residents.
But by then, Janssen had done what most despairing renters do: He moved. The new place has two units.
"In moving, we went through an incredibly thorough cleansing process," he said. "We kept wondering, 'Are we being paranoid, or not careful enough?' "
The one thing that hasn't changed with the comeback of bedbugs is the stigma.
Bennett couldn't find an apartment manager willing to be interviewed because "no one wants to be on the record as the company that's had problems."
At the University of Pennsylvania, spokesman Ron Ozio asserted bedbugs had never infested that Ivy League institution.
Asked why Penn's bedbug-control guide mentions five cases in two years, he said, "We've had isolated incidents, not infestations."
Socioeconomic issues and stereotypes compound the stigma.
"Bedbugs were reintroduced originally through middle- and upper-class businessmen who travel," said Manos at Penn State. "But it's the lower economic strata that doesn't have the resources to deal with extermination, so they become a reservoir for bedbugs."
Although no one wants to admit being bugged, secrecy is increasingly not an option.
Bedbug-related litigation is growing, according to a recent hospitality-law conference. An itchy pair of guests of a Motel 6 in Illinois, for example, were awarded more than $200,000 after motel staff testified that they had been told to call bedbugs "ticks" because it would "alarm the customers less."
And websites like bedbugregistry.com enable travelers and renters to tell all the world about their itchy encounters.
Maciej Ceglowski, a computer consultant who lives "everywhere I can," created the website after staying in a buggy San Francisco hotel. He gets legal threats weekly from hotels and other outed establishments, but so far, removing disputed reports has been enough to keep him out of court.
"I try to strike a balance between people's right to know about these problems vs. the rights of managers and hotel owners who don't have bedbugs or are doing a good job fighting them."
Ceglowski has his own theory about why something so common is such a social disgrace.
"There's so little you can do to fight them," he said. "When we feel powerless, we kind of create stories in our heads to make us feel better."
What they look like: Adult bedbugs are reddish brown, about a quarter-inch long, and resemble ticks. Nymphs are smaller and lighter in color. Eggs, each the size of a dust speck, are whitish and hard to see.
What they do to you: The itchy bites can take days to trigger a reaction. They may look like mosquito bites, welts, a rash, or bumps with red dots. Some people have no reaction.
Where they hide: Tiny dark stains or molted shells in bedding are signs of an infestation. Note, however, that a visual inspection may not reveal anything at all.
How to prevent an infestation: Beware of secondhand furniture or clothing. Inspect hotel mattresses. After traveling, inspect luggage and backpacks and immediately put dirty clothes in a tightly sealed bag until they can be laundered. Put clean clothes in the dryer on high heat.
How to treat an infestation: Don't simply throw away infested beds or furniture. Talk to a pest-control expert about whether the items can be treated, and about proper disposal.
For more information
Among the many websites offering bedbug tips, news, history, photos, forums, research, and more:
- Marie McCullough