Bedbugs Make a Comeback in the Big Apple

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Bedbugs i

Entomologist Louis Sorkin holds his bedbug colony at the American Museum of Natural History, NY. Diantha Parker hide caption

itoggle caption Diantha Parker

Entomologist Louis Sorkin holds his bedbug colony at the American Museum of Natural History, NY.

Diantha Parker


Young bedbug

A young bedbug begins to feed. Randy Mercurio and Louis Sorkin/AMNH hide caption

itoggle caption Randy Mercurio and Louis Sorkin/AMNH

Bedbugs have reappeared across the country, and they're making a dramatic comeback in New York City, where residents reported five times as many infestations in 2006 as last year. The City Council wants to ban reconditioned mattresses, but parasite experts say that won't work.

Bedbug sufferers don't want to hear that "Sleep tight" line ever again. For many, peaceful sleep is a distant memory.

At the end of a four-hour hearing in New York's City Hall, members of the public presented themselves as exhibit A in showing the effects of the parasites.

Pearl Edwards moved from Harlem to New Jersey to escape, but she says she's still afraid.

"I go home on a bus to Jersey now," Edwards says, "and when I sit on that bus, I put plastic. People look like I'm crazy."

Bedbugs are small oval insects. They look like dark lentils with legs. They hide in furniture, live on blood — and have been with us humans since we lived in caves. Researchers say they do not spread disease.

But Councilwoman Gale Brewer says she's received hundreds of calls from constituents, and is alarmed herself.

"My kids all had head lice; we dealt with it — I didn't freak out," Brewer says. "With bedbugs, it's a mental health challenge.

Brewer is sponsoring a bill to form a Bed Bug Task Force to deal with all complaints. One of her proposals is to ban the sale of old mattresses, which can carry bedbugs and their eggs.

But entomologists and exterminators at the hearing doubted that would help solve the problem. Bedbugs can hitchhike on almost anything people sell or give away.

Better, they said, to teach the facts: bedbugs are very hard to kill, they don't care about the race or economic status of their victims, and they can be found in the cleanest of homes.

They can also walk into your apartment from someone else's.

That's what Caitlin Heller thinks happened in her case. Her spotless, sunny one bedroom in Queens is now bug-free. But Heller still lives with the bugs, in a way.

She started the Bedbug Blog, inviting anyone with bugs to vent and commiserate.

"The best thing I saw on the Internet was someone who wrote an article for the New Yorker," Heller says, "using the f-word like seven times — in the New Yorker. And I was like, 'finally, someone out there understands how I feel, you know?'"

Entomologist Louis Sorkin testified at the hearing that it's unclear why bedbugs are thriving here in New York. He says it's possible a few infestations got out of hand and simply spread.

Back at his day job at the American Museum of Natural History, he keeps a colony of bedbugs in a small jelly jar on his desk.

Sorkin has fielded so many bedbug calls in the past 10 years that he considers them a specialty. He says they can live up to a year without eating, emerging from luggage or cracks in walls.

Their resilience may be a key to why they've spread in other cities.

San Francisco and Boston have racked up thousands of complaints. And a federal court in Chicago found a motel chain guilty of hiding its bedbug infestation from customers.

New Yorkers reported 4,600 cases this year — at least, those were the people willing to admit they had a problem.

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