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Resurgence of pest is driving Chicago buggy

Resurgence of pest is driving Chicago buggy

Friday, September 17, 2010

Dana Strong lies awake every night wondering if bedbugs are crawling up her bed and onto her sheets. She scratches imaginary bites and tosses and turns on her new mattress, which has a plastic cover to keep out the bloodsucking parasites.

“It’s horrible,” Strong said. “I haven’t slept in weeks.”

Her ordeal started about a month ago when she spotted black dots on her bed in her Albany Park apartment. She looked closer. The dots were small bugs. She froze.

“I started freaking out,” Strong said. “We had them.”

With concern about the bedbug resurgence reaching a fever pitch across the country, Chicago’s own battle with the pests continues, with almost double the number of tenant complaints to the city’s help line this year as compared to last.

The resurgence of bedbugs in recent years has spurred a pest-fighting industry, as well as confusion over how to get rid of the bugs.

Officials have launched awareness campaigns on how citizens can help control the infestation, and committees and task forces are investigating what cities should do. In July, New York City allocated $500,000 to create a bedbug Web site and improve training of city inspectors and exterminators.

It is hard to say with certainty how Chicago ranks among cities in bedbug problems.

Bedbugs are not known to carry disease and therefore aren’t a public health risk, so federal agencies don’t track the complaints. Some cities are keeping track of tenant complaints to 311 help lines, but those tallies don’t account for homeowners, hotels or retail businesses that might also be dealing with the pest.

In Chicago, bedbug complaints to the city’s 311 help line increased by about 76 percent in the last year, with 1,478 made between Sept. 1, 2009, and Aug. 31, compared with 842 in the same period the year before.

Chicago’s Metropolitan Tenants Organization, a nonprofit renters rights group, has also seen an increase in calls. In 2009, it received 206 calls about bedbugs — about 200 more than the year before. So far this year, the organization has received 150 calls.

In July, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill creating a bedbug committee to determine the extent of the city’s pest problems. That committee has until the end of next year to come up with recommendations on the prevention, management and control of bedbug infestations.

Next week, a number of companies are sponsoring a bedbug summit in Rosemont. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s first-ever bedbug summit in Arlington, Va., drew about 300 participants.

Despite the jump in bedbug complaints, pests such as cockroaches, ants and mice remain at the top of people’s grievances, said Sara Kantarovich, an entomologist for Niles-based Smithereen Pest Management. For example, bedbug calls to the Metropolitan Tenants Organization amount to 2 percent of all complaint calls.

Still, bedbugs have a way of crawling into people’s psyche, experts say. The fear the bugs will bite at night can cause stress, fear and insomnia. People start feeling that bedbugs are omnipresent and can’t be escaped, said Lynne Knobloch-Fedders, a clinical psychologist with The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Some people develop nightmares or wake up at night believing they feel the bloodsuckers crawling on them, when, in fact, most people can’t feel such a thing, she said.

“It’s (the feeling of) helplessness and lack of control that’s at the core of all anxiety,” Knobloch-Fedders said.

The parasites can carry a stigma, with some people believing that only dirty homes can get infested. But in reality, bedbugs can hitch rides into any residence on luggage or old furniture, or in used clothing.

Feeding on the bedbug frenzy, dozens of companies in Chicago and around the nation are now selling luggage covers, college kits and a litany of other bug-fighting products. Some companies offer trained dogs that smell the scent of bedbugs and point out their hiding places.

Despite the increased spotlight on bedbugs, or Cimex lectularius, they’re hardly a new nuisance. They have most likely been around for as long as there have been humans, said Philip Nixon, an entomologist with the University of Illinois Extension.

In the U.S., their population dropped dramatically during the 1950s through the use of DDT, but they were never eradicated. Their comeback is attributed to several factors, including a resistance to pesticides, an increase of travel and a lack of awareness, experts say.

They were out for so long, Nixon said, that a generation of people don’t know what they are or how to deal with them. For instance, some people think that bedbugs can fly. They can’t. But they can crawl fairly rapidly to hide in mattresses, box springs and bed frames. Most worrisome, bedbugs can live for months without feeding. And, female bedbugs deposit one to two eggs per day and hundreds over a lifetime, which makes it hard to get rid of them.

Some experts warn against trying to eradicate bedbugs with heavy use of pesticides, however. Overuse could put people’s health at risk, and may not kill the bugs, but instead send them fleeing for refuge in other rooms or apartments.

“I often have to tell people to remain calm so that they don’t panic and make bad decisions,” said Rachel Rosenberg, the executive director of Safer Pest Control Project, a Chicago-based group dedicated to reducing the use of pesticides.

Some of those bad decisions also include throwing away furniture that could be salvaged or moving before exterminating the bugs. The only way to effectively control the parasites is to use a multi-method approach, which includes vacuuming, heat-treating clothing and furniture and using pesticides that explicitly say they kill bedbugs, according to the EPA.

Strong, the woman from Albany Park, has spent more than $3,000 trying to get rid of the pests. Her landlord called an exterminator, but the bugs endured. So she threw away her bed and her son’s as well, put their clothes in plastic bags, sealed her front door with duct tape and armed herself with a vacuum cleaner, a carpet steamer and a flash light. Now she constantly patrols crevices and corners and rubs alcohol on the walls to keep them away.

“It’s the worst thing that could happen to anybody,” said Strong, 32.

She washes laundry every two days, dragging her and her son’s clothes out in plastic bags to keep the bedbugs from infesting her car. A fruitless effort — they’re in her car now too.

After a recent trip to the laundromat, her son Matty, 4, showed off his toy race car. “Doesn’t have bugs!” he said.

He hasn’t been so lucky. “They bit me,” he said, lifting up his shirt to show the red marks on his tummy.

Strong hopes to find a new apartment as soon as she can — one without her bloodsucking roommates.

Alejandra Cancino

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