Bedbugs, unlike mosquitoes, don’t spread illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — nor are they found only amidst squalor.
Nonetheless, most people recoil at the idea of finding the little creatures in their homes.
So it’s understandable that city Fire Chief Tim Hileman last week urged local authorities to awaken to the realization that bedbug infestations have become an increasingly common problem for first responders and that the issue should become part of this year’s update of Blair County’s hazard mitigation plan.
Firefighters have been encountering bedbugs more and more frequently over the last five years, said Hileman, who has worked for the fire department for two decades.
The encounters began happening often enough two years ago that the department adopted a protocol, which calls for hot washing and hot drying of clothing worn by firefighters who’ve entered an infested home after they’ve returned to their stations, Hileman said.
AMED workers clean their ambulances after every patient anyway, because of issues that include bedbugs, according to AMED Executive Director Gary Watters.
If an ambulance has just handled a patient from a dwelling known to be infested, workers also use a pesticide, he said.
AMED employees who suspect they may be carrying bedbugs on their clothing change their uniforms, then wash them and dry them on the hottest setting, he added.
Bedbugs are also an issue for city code officers.
Officers returning from infested homes are told to go to their own houses to bag their clothing and shower, said Rebecca Brown, director of the city Codes and Inspections Department.
Code officers sometimes discover bedbug infestations while inspecting rental properties and sometimes when investigating unrelated issues, Brown said.
They are alerted to bedbug problems by tenants in rental units, visitors to rental units and even visitors to owner-occupied homes, said Brown, who explained that property owners, including landlords, are responsible for eliminating infestations initially, but tenants are responsible for keeping their dwellings bedbug free after that.
Bedbugs are “small, flat, parasitic insects that feed solely on the blood of people and animals while they sleep,” states the CDC website. The are reddish-brown, wingless and range from 1 to 7 mm in size, the CDC states.
They’re found all over the world, according to the CDC.
Previously, they’ve been thought of as a problem restricted mainly to developing countries, but they’ve “recently been spreading rapidly in parts of the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe,” the CDC states.
“Their presence is not determined by the cleanliness of the living conditions where they are found,” the CDC states. “Bedbugs have been found in five-star hotels.”
While not known to spread disease, they can be “an annoyance,” the CDC states.
Actually, the emotional furor they cause goes far beyond annoyance.
“Why are we so unnerved by these bugs?” asked Jessica Leigh Hester in a 2015 CityLab review of the book “Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World.”
“I suspect the biggest reason is that they feed on us,” said Michael Skvarla, director of the insect identification laboratory at Penn State’s Department of Entomology. They drink our blood, and they live in our most personal, private, protected space — our beds, he added.
Mosquitoes also drink our blood, but they fly around in the open, he said.
As an entomologist, one might think Skvarla would be resistant to bedbug “heebie-jeebies.”
But he hasn’t put those thoughts to bed.
“I don’t want them in my house,” he said. “I don’t want something biting me in the middle of the night.”
Not only do bedbugs bite in the middle of the night, but they do so with remarkable stealth.
“They inject an anesthetic and an anticoagulant that prevents a person from realizing they are being bitten,” the CDC states.
Bedbugs are also expert at hiding, concealing themselves in “the smallest of spaces, including seams and folds of luggage, overnight bags, folded clothes, bedding (and) furniture,” the CDC states.
As with bedbugs, people are disgusted by cockroaches, which are oddly linked to the surge of bedbug infestations, according to Skvarla.
In years past, DDT was sprayed in homes to kill roaches hiding in cracks and crevices, he said.
Secondarily, the pesticide killed the bedbugs hiding in those space spaces, he said.
With DDT prohibited for such use, people now apply chemicals that are safer for humans or use bait traps to combat cockroaches, and there’s little or no secondary killing of bed bugs, Skvarla said.
Bedbugs are also more prevalent now because of the greater ease of travel and greater use of hotels, Skvarla said.
Bedbugs don’t cause disease at least partly because they go so long between feedings, so that any germs they pick up from one host doesn’t survive in their gut before the next feeding, Skvarla said.
Adult bedbugs feed once a week on average, according to a Penn State Extension article.
Hileman’s concerns about bedbugs seem to be shared by many in the first responder community.
“Bedbugs totally suck,” states Janet Liebsch, vice president of the U.S. First Responders Association, in a post on the association website.
“As an emergency first responder, bedbugs are part of your future,” writes Dini Miller, professor of urban pest management at Virginia Tech, in a four-page article titled “Bed Bug Prevention for Emergency Facilities and Patient Transport.” “It is important that the presence of bed bugs does not distract you from your work, and yet you need to avoid picking them up and transporting them with you.”
Miller recommends that first responder organizations find a bedbug expert who can conduct training for employees and volunteers.
When entering homes, first responders should be on the lookout for signs of infestation, including smashed bugs on walls and fecal matter on mattresses, Miller writes.
First responders should wear simple clothes, including shirts without buttons or pockets and pants without cuffs, she writes. They should also consider paper covers for their shoes, and they should place plastic on the floor for kneeling and for canvas bags, and they should designate a crew member to look our for signs of infestation signs and warn colleagues with a prearranged code word when he sees those signs, she writes.
First responders should also use plastic bags, including body bags, to encase patient belongings and patients themselves, if those are infested, she writes.
Skvarla doesn’t see such high risk.
“(First responders) should be aware that bedbugs are a thing,” Skvarla said.
But unless they encounter such a large infestation that bedbugs are “crawling up and down the walls” it’s unlikely they’ll bring the critters back on their clothes or equipment, he said.
Those who find bedbugs in their own homes should consult a professional exterminator, according to the Penn State Extension article.
“Most of the necessary insecticides are only for sale to and use by professional pest-management companies,” the article states. “If homeowners try to control these bugs with over-the-counter products, the bedbugs likely will become dispersed, resulting in a more difficult treatment required at a later date.”
Pest control companies also use freezing and heating against bedbugs, based on information available online.
A billboard seen recently along Plank Road urging people and organizations troubled by bedbugs to contact a local pest control firm confirms the increased incidence of the problem, said Blair County Planning Director Dave McFarland, after hearing Hileman’s suggestion that the issue become part of the county plan.
Perhaps it should, as an educational project, McFarland said.