By Hannah Foster
“Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!” It’s a phrase you have probably heard countless times, though you most likely didn’t take the mildly ominous bedtime expression too seriously. But lately, this saying may be a little too true for comfort, according to Dr. Changlu Wang and his team of researchers at Rutgers University.
Bed bugs are parasitic insects, ranging in size from 1-7 mm. These critters are nocturnal and feast only on blood, using humans as their primary host, so the favorite bed bug refuge is tucked away in our beds and couches. Bed bugs are not known to transmit any diseases, but their bites can be painful and lead to itching, welts, and insomnia. Moreover, they are easily spread from one apartment to the next by the residents themselves or through the exchange of bug-infested furniture. From the mid-twentieth century until recently, these blood suckers were pretty much under control in developed countries, thanks primarily to synthetic insecticides. Unfortunately, bed bug infestations have been on the rise for the past 15 years and are a real problem in many communities. The reasons for their resurgence are not entirely clear, but it may have something to do with insecticide resistance, international travel, and ineffective pest management.
Public health researchers like Dr. Wang are trying to determine where bed bug outbreaks are occurring and the best way to prevent and control infestations. In an article in the Journal of Medical Entomology, Wang and company report their findings from investigating bed bug infestations in 43 low-income apartment buildings around New Jersey. In total, they examined more than 2,000 apartments for the presence of bed bugs using visual inspections, resident interviews, and bed bug traps. Wang and his team report that about 12 percent of apartments had bed bug infestations, although the rates of infestation varied from building to building.
Wang and the other researchers also collected information about the age, race, and gender of the tenants occupying the apartments, as well as how long the residents had occupied the apartment. Most apartments were occupied by couples, so the team of researchers could not determine whether infestations were more common in the homes of men or women. However, an interesting finding was that women were more likely to report symptoms of bed bug bites and more likely to express concern upon learning their homes were infested. Wang and the other Rutgers researchers found that apartment buildings with a high turnover of tenants had higher bed bug infestations. Moreover, infestations were more prevalent in the homes of African Americans than in those of white or Hispanic residents. Statistics like these are critical for controlling bed bug infestations, Wang explained, because “[they] can be used to target our education and bed bug prevention efforts to the most vulnerable communities.”
One of the big challenges of bed bug control is the time and cost involved even in simply detecting infestations. Wang discovered that 50 percent of residents with bed bug infestations in this study were completely unaware of them. This means that landlords and rental companies cannot rely on tenant complaints to detect infestations before they spread. Wang found that they were able to detect nearly 75 percent of infestations with brief visual inspections. These inspections took well under 10 minutes per apartment and would therefore cost only $12 per apartment for labor and the occasional bed bug trap in inconclusive cases (based on a $50/hour labor rate). Other methods of detection, such as the use of dogs or thorough investigations, were not more accurate, and they can take as long as 16 minutes and cost up to $21 per apartment.
Even at only $12 per apartment, this can add up quickly for a large apartment building. So who should be paying for this? According to Wang, “it should be the responsibility of the landlords to provide bed bug inspections to make sure a new apartment is bed bug free. The state agencies should also consider providing help identifying high infestation communities and reducing bed bug infestations.”
Landlords may be reluctant to pay people to proactively conduct apartment searches for bug infestations, however. Thus, research like that of Dr. Wang is necessary to make home inspections as inexpensive as possible and to identify communities at high risk for bed bug infestations. This, in turn, should encourage compliance from landlords. Without action from landlords and rental companies, Wang warns that “bed bugs will continue to spread among communities through human activities.”
Wang and researchers report that in order to quell the rate of bed bug infestations, we must do the following:
- Monitor bed bug infestations on a building-wide basis.
- Treat bed bug infestations in vacant units prior to taking new tenants.
- Improve bed bug control efforts in communities that are most at risk.
- Better educate residents on ways to control bed bug infestations.
If you’re currently battling a bed bug infestation, there are some things you can do and some things you shouldn’t. According to the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, here are some effective techniques to use to control the infestation, as well as some commonly-used techniques that are NOT effective.
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Hannah Foster is a PhD student in molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University and a freelance writer. She studies protein biochemistry in microbes, and enjoys writing about science and non-science alike. You can follow her on Twitter at @Foster_HR and read her blog about boxing as it pertains to life at theblowbyblow.com. She is also a frequent contributor to Harvard Science in the News Flash and to The Bitter Empire.