Bed bugs enter the New Orleans area - mostly in homes

October 18 2010 | Latest News
Bed bugs pose headaches to homeowners, challenges to businesses

Sunday, October 17, 2010,

Rebecca Mowbray, The Times-Picayune

Billiot Pest Control general manager Ernest Esteve has been in the bug business since August 1982, but he didn't do his first bedbug job until 2007. Since then, calls have ramped up steadily.
orkinbedbug.jpgPhoto courtesy Orkin

"This year, I want to say we're getting 15-20 calls a month. It's bad," Esteve said. "I get a few calls from hotels, but the bulk of what I'm getting is actually from homeowners. They've gone to hotels in other states and brought the critters back with them, or they've had someone come visit who picked them up."

Esteve's experience dovetails with data from Orkin, a national pest control company based in Atlanta. New Orleans experienced an 89 percent increase in bedbug treatments from 2008 to 2009, and now ranks 25th in the country as a bedbug hot spot. Orkin's commercial branch now does about 30 to 40 treatments a month at area businesses, a 30 percent increase since last year.

Since bedbugs appeared in the United States a few years ago for the first time in 50 years, they've spread from big cities like New York to other destinations around the country, and the epidemic has widened from hotels to other types of businesses and residences. That means it's a new headache for homeowners, and a potential management challenge for businesses that deal with the public or that could be affected by contaminated goods.
bed-bug-mattress.jpg (Stephanie S. Cordle, St. Louis Post-DispatchJoe Wells of Rottler Pest & Lawn Solutions looks around a St. Louis, Mo., home where he is using a bed bug heat treatment. Heat is an environmentally friendly method for eradicating bed bugs, without using pesticides or chemicals.

Bedbugs don't make people sick, but bites can be annoying and itchy and the bugs are very hard to get rid of. Decades ago, pest control companies would have just blasted them with DDT, which was very effective but devastating for the environment, and is now illegal. Since bedbugs had been eradicated in the United States, the pest control industry hasn't developed bait and trap approaches that it has for dealing with other insects, and novel approaches such as using extreme heat or cold to kill them may not be suitable for treating them inside a home.

Entomologists have to engage in laborious tasks of hunting for bedbugs, isolating them, and hitting them with a combination of treatments, depending on where they are lodged. Treating them can take several visits, and depending on the size of a home infestation, can run from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

A new experience

"We don't understand, we don't know their biology, we don't know how big a pest they are. We haven't lived with them," said Dennis Ring, extension entomologist at the LSU Ag Center. "Entomologists across the nation are working on this."

Because of those challenges, Ed Martin, company entomologist at Terminix, said the most effective way of treating bedbugs will be for businesses and the traveling public to learn how to spot them and engage in practices that will reduce the chances of spreading them. Individuals are advised to pull back sheets and lift mattresses when checking into a hotel room, place suitcases on a luggage rack or a hard surface, switch to hard-back suitcases, leave soft suitcases outside in the hot sun upon returning home, and wash clothes in a hot water and dry them in a hot dryer. Businesses will need to make sure that they don't take on contaminated goods, or cross-contaminate other goods.

"It's more now about teaching people the proper precaution," Martin said. "It's going to be a learning process."

In recent years, the American Hotel and Lodging Association has added new chapters to its training manual for housekeeping operations to include information on bedbugs, and has started selling bilingual training DVDs on bedbugs. Last year, the trade association also offered a webinar on the topic dealing with delicate issues such how to handle guests who find bedbugs.

Locally, Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association, said that her association bought a copy of the DVD to make sure information is available to even small hotels. Her group is also working with the Department of Health and Hospitals to come up with statewide guidelines, and is trying to anticipate upcoming issues, such as how to dispose of contaminated materials.

"From a local level, because New Orleans is the center of tourism in the state, this is something that hoteliers are going to be on top of immediately," Early said.

If an infestation is found, the rooms immediately above, below and around the hot spot are treated. Furniture can be treated without being discarded. Instead of being sprayed with chemicals, mattresses must be encased in a special impenetrable bag that seals the bugs inside for at least a year and starves them.

Procedures at apartment complexes are the same. Tammy Esponge, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater New Orleans Inc., said that while bedbugs haven't been a big problem at local apartment complexes, the association will be offering a class for apartment managers next year.

Retailers are keeping watch

But if the infestation at Niketown in New York isn't enough evidence that an infestation can occur anywhere, Jed D'Arensbourg of DA Exterminating Co. in Metairie, said he has a job treating a warehouse full of furniture.

The National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops says that bedbugs haven't been a problem, but used clothing and furniture retailers are being vigilant.

Sabrina Written, a spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Louisiana Inc., which has 14 stores in 23 parishes, said that Goodwill doesn't sell any mattresses or box springs unless they're wrapped and donated by a vendor. Workers routinely inspect goods to make sure they're not defective or subject to safety recalls, Written said, and have added bedbugs to the list of things to watch for. "We've not had any reports from employees or shoppers," she said.

Used furniture stores, which often resell furniture from hotels, either didn't return phone calls or didn't want to be interviewed for a story about bedbugs.

Esteve, of Billiot Pest Control, said he's seen many homeowners get the willies about bedbugs and decide it's time to buy a new mattress even though the old one is still usable as long as it's sealed in a mattress bag. Illustrating the many issues that can arise with bedbugs, he worries that when the truck delivering the new mattress takes the old one away, the truck could get contaminated.

The International Sleep Products Association said because of that concern, it's working on legislation in New York that would require that old mattresses be sealed in plastic before being discarded and labeled that they are contaminated with bedbugs.

Hard for homeowners

While many businesses have existing pest control contracts and can dial up help instantly, dealing with bedbugs may be more burdensome for homeowners, especially if their homes are cluttered and therefore require more cost and effort to treat them.

As pest control companies report that residential cases of bedbugs are on the rise, the National Association of Realtors has heard reports that some would-be buyers in the New York area have asked for sellers to attest that their home is free of bedbugs.

Since the bedbug situation in New Orleans isn't as bad as in bigger cities, Joe Ory, president to the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors, said he hasn't heard of any bedbug disclosure requests in sales contracts, and such efforts probably are unnecessary since contracts have standard catchall phrases asking sellers to disclose any other potential problems with a home.

"If it starts to crop up as an issue, it will reverberate throughout the Realtor network like a forest fire," Ory said.

For pest control companies, which are seeing business level off after a surge of termite retreatments and special pest issues after Katrina, bedbugs are a growth area.

Still, Esteve said he wouldn't wish bedbugs on anyone, because they're awful to treat. "Just having to do it sends chills down my spine," he said. "I did one house, and I got home and stripped down in the driveway."