I never realized what a problem bedbugs were until some of my friends got them.
My friends who have had bedbugs — and there have been quite a few – became single-minded zombies, oblivious to the outside world, locked in a constant struggle with bedbugs. At first, they were optimistic — this thing would be over with just one exterminator visit.
Some of my friends ended up locked in a battle for months. They stopped inviting people over to their homes. They appeared almost ready to give up against the tiny insect invaders. They had to buy new beds, new furniture, new clothes!
My friends’ experiences with bedbugs made me terrified of them. (Um, the bedbugs, not my friends.) And I haven’t even had them! I can’t imagine how those who actually suffered through a bedbug infestation feel about them.
None of my friends have had bedbugs in a couple years, thankfully. But I thought about them last week when a new report from Penn professors flagged the troubling Philadelphia bedbug problem. Literally, the only upside from the story is that bedbugs aren’t as much of a problem in winter. Unless we’re entering a Game of Thrones-style long winter, that doesn’t give me much comfort.
The Penn researchers have some ideas why the bedbug threat seems to be underplayed. Michael Z. Levy, a Penn professor, told the Inquirer that "it's really one of those situations where everyone's dealing with it quietly and privately, but it's very, very prevalent." People are embarrassed to admit they have bedbugs. It's like when we forget that Philadelphia's chlamydia rates are the highest in the country until yet another study reminding us of that comes out.
And the rates in Philadelphia for bedbugs, too, are sky high. The Atlantic Cities noted from the study that "the number of known infestations during [2008 to 2011] increased by 4.5 percent a month – an incredible 70 percent each year." Are you terrified yet?
So bedbugs bite your skin and make your life hell for a few months. Is there anything else to fear? Levy, the Penn researcher, told the Inquirer about an even scarier possibility: The idea that bedbugs could be a vector for transmitting disease. The consensus is that bedbugs don't do this, but on the surface (the epidermis, if you will) the idea seems plausible — a single bedbug does have the opportunity to bite several different people, depending on the situation.
It's weird: Bedbugs were nearly wiped out after World War II, thanks to DDT; when DDT was banned in 1972 — it caused a litany of health issues — the bedbugs began to return.
You know what's coming next: The current pesticides used to treat bedbugs may be causing health problems. "People become desperate and will do crazy things," Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, a pest management coordinator at Cornell, told the Huffington Post. "Overall, the public health effects of bedbugs have been largely overlooked." Not only may pesticides be dangerous, but people who are locked in a war with bedbugs tend to overuse them.
Even the prevention tips for fighting bedbugs are pretty bleak. The official government website says to check secondhand furniture for bedbugs, wash all clothes immediately after a trip and encase your mattress and box spring in a protective cover. To get rid of them, your options are washing your bedding and clothes in high temperatures—and pesticides (which is probably best left to trained professionals).
But let's leave on a high note: There is some upside to the Penn study. Researchers may be able to exploit the seasonal bedbug trends to fight them. And Levy, the Penn researcher, does work in Peru — which faces the scourge of Trypanosoma cruzi, a bug that can cause a disease leading to heart failure.
"In Peru, the Ministry of Health has been able to eliminate the insects from tens of thousands of people’s homes," Levy said. "Bedbugs are different, and in many ways more difficult to control. Still, my team is hoping to translate what works there for Philadelphia."
We can only hope the Peruvian Ministry of Health can help us all. In the meantime, I'll be washing all my sheets at high temperatures more often.
Follow @dhm on Twitter.