TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
I don't know about you, but checking into hotels during my vacation had a new note of anxiety. Will there be bedbugs? I inspected. I lifted the sheet and looked at the edges of the mattress and thankfully didn't see anything.
In spite of the fact that this wasn't exactly a thorough inspection, I got through my vacation bug-free. I'm really not sure how worried I should be about the spread of bedbugs and what precautionary actions to take.
To get a sense of perspective, as well as some practical advice, we have as our guest today, Michael Potter, who is a professor of urban entomology at the University of Kentucky, specializing in pests infesting buildings, people and pets. He's the former technical director of a major pest control company.
If you want to know what to look for, he describes bedbugs as the color of an apple seed and a little bit smaller. Typically, bedbugs can live two to three months without feeding, which is one of several reasons they're hard to get rid of.
Michael Potter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Give us a sense of how big the problem is. You co-authored a study at the University of Kentucky and the National Pest Management Association surveyed the U.S. and international companies about the state of the bedbug resurgence. So what did you find?
Professor MICHAEL POTTER (Professor of Entomology, University of Kentucky): Well, what we found was not really that surprising to us, that bedbugs are resurging throughout the world, not just here in the United States. So we're really dealing with a global resurgence and really a growing importance worldwide, affecting many different types of stakeholders, not just homes and hotels and apartments.
GROSS: But also?
Prof. POTTER: Well, where do we start? College dormitories.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Oh, stop. Yeah.
Prof. POTTER: College dormitories, homeless shelters, nursing homes, office buildings, hospitals, schools and day cares, movie theaters, modes of transportation, Laundromats, retail stores, libraries, camps. Should I keep going?
GROSS: No, maybe you should stop. Maybe you should stop.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So when you mentioned that whole list, I mean, is the typical clothing store infested? Is the typical library infested? Or are these one-offs?
Prof. POTTER: No, Terry. First of all, we need to, you know, put a lot of this in perspective. What we're seeing with the bedbug is not surprising at all. If you look back at the historical precedents for this bug, it was quite common in places beyond where people slept.
That said, we're still in, I think, the early stages of bedbugs showing up in these less-conventional places like clothing stores and libraries and movie theaters. And we have to sort of keep a sense of perspective about ourselves, about the likelihood of finding them in those types of places.
GROSS: And you think it's pretty unlikely right now?
Prof. POTTER: Well, the problem is building. It's just a matter of what you mean by unlikely. I would say that people should probably be unconcerned about encountering bedbugs in those types of places at this point.
Is it possible? Certainly it's possible. But what's happening is the news media attention focusing on these isolated infestations here and there I think creates a huge concern among people, and I think we have to, you know, keep a bit of this in some perspective.
GROSS: So what are the cities with the biggest infestations right now?
Prof. POTTER: Well, you know, there have been different surveys on that, and I think it parallels, you know, basically the larger metropolitan areas that have a lot of people and a lot of movement of people tend to have more bedbug problems.
So it's, of course, cities like New York and Philly and Detroit and Chicago and San Francisco, Baltimore, and there have been some lists that list those and others. But basically, when you've got lots of people living in close proximity to one another and lots of travel and movement of people, you're going to have bedbug issues.
GROSS: And typically, it spreads from the cities to other locations, suburbs and then beyond suburbs, yes?
Prof. POTTER: Well, that's correct. I mean, the bug has a remarkable ability to move from one place to another. And again, we could go back to the 1700s and see exactly the same patterns, where bedbugs originated in large seaport towns and areas of commerce. And with time, they move inland, with the railroad and so forth, to more rural, outlying areas. And we're seeing the same pattern again today. Places that didn't have bedbugs five years are now reporting incidents, as well.
GROSS: Why are they sometimes called the perfect parasite?
Prof. POTTER: Well, I've used that term for a number of reasons. First of all, they bite you while you're sleeping, under cover of darkness, in your bedroom. The bites are painless. In other words, the victim seldom realizes they've been bitten until some time later on. So there's a lot of confusion in terms of, you know, what's happening here.
Unlike a lot of other parasites like ticks and fleas and lice, bedbugs don't stay on the host - they scurry away to their hidden harborages that are often far from obvious.
And then on top of all of that, people react to bedbug bites differently. Some don't react at all. They're being bitten, but they just don't react. And in other people, the reactions are delayed until maybe days or even as much as weeks later.
So it creates a lot of confusion in terms of what exactly is going on. So it's a very efficient critter from the standpoint of doing its business and creating a lot of anxiety and uncertainty in terms of what's happening.
GROSS: If the bite is painless, is that because they basically anesthetize us when they bite us?
Prof. POTTER: Yeah, when a bedbug bites a person, they inject both an anti-coagulant, which allows the bug to extract blood from the human, and also sort of anesthetizing agent, which causes the bite to be painless, unlike say a flea bite, for example. And, you know, if you just sort of use common sense, that's a good survival mechanism because if you woke up and felt the pain immediately, not too many bedbugs would survive to feed another day.
GROSS: How does a bedbug bite compare to a mosquito bite?
Prof. POTTER: Well, in people that are sensitive, they both cause these raised, red, itchy lesions. And, you know, everybody is different in terms of how they react to insect bites. Some people you know, I get bit by a mosquito, and I itch for 20 minutes, and it goes away. You know, my wife gets bit by a mosquito, and she itches for two weeks.
People that suffer bedbug bites tell me that they itch like crazy. In other words, the itching is very intense, often lasting for an extended period of time. But in most people, you know, the reactions are somewhat similar in that you see these raised, red, very itchy welts.
GROSS: So at the risk of stating the obvious, why do bedbugs live in beds, and how do they manage to live there?
Prof. POTTER: Well, one thing that a bedbug needs to survive is blood. So this creature has evolved over the eons to feed on humans. And from an efficiency standpoint, you know, much in the insect world is about efficiency, why crawl further than you have to for your next meal?
So the bed is probably the most common place where bedbugs are found, although we do find them in couches and recliners, which also people tend to sleep in. But with time, they move outward from the bed into lots of other places. But the bed is certainly ground zero for bedbug infestations.
GROSS: And apparently, they like to live in cracks and folds. So that kind of crevice at the end of a mattress, where the ticking is that what it's called that raised thing at the edge of a mattress, they apparently love to live in that crevice there. So why do they like cracks and crevices and edges like that?
Prof. POTTER: Well, a lot of insects like to be up against edges. If you were to put a bunch of bedbugs into a flat dish, they would work their way to the edge of a dish. If you were to put a pencil in the dish, they might line up along that pencil, much as they line up along those seams and folds and corners of mattresses.
So those are the places we typically find them, but we have to remember that the mattress - basically when you find bedbugs on the mattress, you've probably got fairly large numbers of bedbugs because they tend to prefer even more secluded places like the juncture between the box spring and the mattress, the side of the box spring where it sits on the frame of the bed.
In the case of a hotel room, probably the first place you'll find bedbugs is behind the headboard because there's less disruption in that area, yet it's close to the person sleeping.
So they've adapted and learned, you know, where the most efficient place is to be close to their meal and still be hidden away, which of course is one of the most maddening things about, you know, bedbug eradication and detection is finding all these hidden locations.
GROSS: Okay, you're killing me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I recently stayed at a couple of hotels, and I thought, okay, I know what I'm doing. I know about the bedbug things. I'm going to lift the sheet in a corner and look at the mattress, and I did that.
I looked in one corner of the mattress, looked in another corner, and I thought: Nothing there, we're done, I'm safe. And now I realize I had done nothing. I mean, my search was completely inefficient.
Prof. POTTER: Well, you've done more than nothing, and at least that's a good start. You know, we have to be realistic about these things in terms of what people are going to be willing to do. And, I mean, I can tell you what I do, you know, when I inspect my room.
Prof. POTTER: First thing I do before I unpack is I remove the bed sheets and the blankets I'm probably going to be blackballed from every hotel in the United States now that I've revealed this on air.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. POTTER: And I examine the upper and lower seams of the mattress at the two corners by the pillow area and along the seam that runs below the headboard.
The reason I look there first is that bedbugs tend to be drawn to heat and carbon dioxide as a person sleeps. So typically if they're on the mattress, we're more likely to see them in that location.
Now, we could see them at the foot of the bed, you know, around the label or other places. But I'm basically, you know, lazy like everybody, and there's only so much I'm going to do.
So that's the first place I look, and if I can see the upper seam of the box spring in those areas, I'll take a look at that, as well, looking for the little brown bugs themselves, as well as the black speckling, little spots, which are the droppings of the bedbug, the fecal material of the bedbug.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Potter. He's a professor of urban entomology at the University of Kentucky. We'll talk more about bedbugs after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about bedbugs. My guest, Michael Potter, is an expert on that. He's a professor of urban entomology at the University of Kentucky and has actually worked in the pest control business, as well.
We were talking about what you do to check out a hotel room. Have you been in hotel rooms where you've checked it out and realized, yes, bedbugs?
Prof. POTTER: Yes, I have.
GROSS: So then what do you do?
Prof. POTTER: Well, you know, everybody's entitled to do what they want, but what I do is I contact the front desk and say I need another room, preferably one that's, you know, farther away than the room next door.
I should say that I, you know, I do do a more thorough inspection than what I just mentioned to you...
GROSS: Oh, keep going then. Keep going.
Prof. POTTER: Well, I mean, when you get on the Internet, you read about this stuff, and I think it's a great time to clarify some things.
It is probable that if you have a very low-level infestation of bed bugs in that hotel room, you will not see them in the areas that I just mentioned. As I said, when pest control companies inspect hotel rooms or hotels inspect the rooms themselves, it's a prudent practice to remove the headboard, if the headboard is fixed to the wall.
In many hotels, the headboard rests on a little ledge that if you basically lift the headboard up and off, it will be removed. And we often will see these earliest stages of bedbug infestation behind the headboards, around the crevices and the seams where wood meets wood, the corners and so forth behind that.
But, you know, these headboards can be very heavy. And it's probably an imprudent practice for the average person to try to remove these things, and it can be difficult to get them back on the wall afterwards.
I take some other precautions. I tend to not spread my stuff all over the room. I tend to, you know, use what I need and zip up my suitcase. I tend to leave my suitcase on as hard a surface as I can find, like a tabletop or credenza, or if that's not available on the luggage rack, rather than laying it on the floor, you know, up against a wall or in the corner of the room or on the other bed if there happen to be two beds in the room.
But this is just me. I mean, you know, you asked me if I've found bedbugs in hotel rooms. I have, but it's still a pretty rare occurrence. I think I've only found them two or three times, and I travel a fair amount.
GROSS: So when you say, okay, there's you call the front desk. You say there's bedbugs in my room. I need another room. Why don't you say there's bedbugs in the room, I need another hotel?
Prof. POTTER: Well, for starters, you know, most bedbug infestations in hotels are spotty. In other words, they may have, you know, one, two, a few rooms that are infested.
Rarely is the entire hotel infested. And I think that's a really important point for people to remember because I think there's a perception that, you know, if you read something online that there were bedbugs in somebody's room, that means the whole hotel is infested, and we've got to go find another place. Not you know, that's usually not the way it works.
Do we have some hotels that have, you know, more extensive bedbug problems? We do, but that tends to not be the case. So, you know, usually getting another room and preferably one that's not right next door because there is a tendency for bedbugs to move from room to room. So, in other words, the odds increase that they'll be in the room adjoining to the room that you find them in initially.
GROSS: You're a pro. Now, you've been studying bedbugs for years. You used to be in the pest management business. Are you as creeped out by bedbugs as most of us are?
Prof. POTTER: Not creeped out but very concerned. Very concerned because I think we're in uncharted waters this time with bedbugs and a lot has changed societally since we dealt with bedbugs, you know, 40 or 50 years ago.
GROSS: What's changed?
Prof. POTTER: Well, all sorts of things. I mean, first of all, we've got unprecedented movement of people today, and we know this bug has an amazing ability to hitchhike from one place to another. So while we didn't just start traveling, you know, 10 years ago, we certainly have a lot more movement of people today than years ago.
I mean, the bedbugs that you're dealing with in, you know, an apartment building in New York City could have come from across the ocean, you know, two days before.
There's a lot more stuff and clutter that people have today. In other words, you know, if you looked at a typical boarding house or dwelling in the 1930s, you know, they didn't have all the books and CDs and electronic equipment and...
GROSS: You're describing my home.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. POTTER: And the relevance of that is that, you know, as bedbug problems persist, they tend to move outward from the bed into all the other stuff. So from a preparation standpoint, it's extremely draining on people to have to prepare their home or apartment for bedbug inspections and treatments because they can be in all this stuff. And pest control companies are very apprehensive today about over-applying pesticides.
You know, we've been training the pest control industry over the last 20, 25 years, you know, don't spray where you don't need to, don't and heaven forbid, don't spray anybody's bedroom because that's not where bugs typically live. And for goodness sakes, don't spray their bed.
Well, these are in fact exactly the places where bedbugs live. So, you know, we generally do not spray over people's clothing and bed sheets and stuff on the floor. So it requires a lot of preparation.
But there's a lot of other reasons why things are different this time around. We have, unfortunately, less potent insecticides for both the pest control professional, as well as for use by householders themselves.
What pretty much wiped the slate clean on these bugs was some phenomenally effective, long-lasting insecticides that we don't have available for use anymore today.
GROSS: Because they're too toxic.
Prof. POTTER: Well, there's some debate about all that, but basically, yeah, their concerns about health risks with these materials is why they're no longer on the market.
GROSS: You're talking for instance about DDT, right?
Prof. POTTER: Well, DDT and some of the products that came after it. I think people need to understand that probably the single biggest reason, by far, that allowed us to virtually wipe the slate clean of bedbugs in the 1950s and '60s was the availability of DDT, which was just phenomenally effective on bedbugs and lasted a really long time, perhaps as much as years after the treatment.
But maybe, you know, as big or bigger than all those reasons, Terry, was that people have changed today. I mean, we have literally gone through, you know, a generation where we live pretty much vermin-free, at least in the developed world.
And I think with that, we've developed sort of a sense of entitlement or a sense of, you know, that everything goes right and you just don't live with bloodsucking parasites feeding on you while you're sleeping.
So I think people have gotten so creeped out about this, and there's a tendency today to, you know, frankly, you know, want to blame people when something goes wrong. So it's going to be interesting to see how this all evolves.
And of course, the news media attention directed on this is something that also has changed quite a bit from years ago, when people would I'm not saying that bedbugs weren't a big problem and concern years ago, but it was another thing that life threw at you, whereas today, I think, you know, you get two or three bedbugs in someone's cubicle in an office building, and they vacate the whole office building for three days. You know, those sorts of changes are quite different this time around.
GROSS: Michael Potter will talk more about bedbugs in the second half of the show. He's a professor of urban entomology at the University of Kentucky. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: So if you find that you have some bedbugs at home, what should be the first step?
Prof. POTTER: Well, first of all, you're either going to see the bugs or you're going to start developing, you know, these red, very itchy welts. And while that's not a guarantee that it's bedbugs, because there can be all sorts of things that can cause, you know, red itchy welts. But if you suspect bedbugs, it would be prudent to contact a pest control company to come out and do an inspection and try and verify that in fact that's what is the problem.
GROSS: And if it is the problem, what are some of the tools that the individual and the pest control company have to deal with the bugs?
Prof. POTTER: Well, they start with an inspection to confirm, you know, that bedbugs are in fact the culprit, and then what they should do is provide the person with education, information, instructions about how to prepare for their treatment. And unfortunately this is where, you know, a lot of the anguish and exasperation comes in, because typically pest control companies will require that people remove all of their belongings from floors. Many companies will ask them to strip the sheets off the bed and launder all of those bed linens. They'll ask them to empty closets, commonly the drawers in the bedroom at least.
So there's a tremendous amount of preparation and then all that stuff either goes into the washing machine on a high temperature setting or you can just put it right into a clothes dryer and the heat from the clothes dryer will accomplish the same thing. But then all that stuff gets bagged up or put in the large, you know, Tupperware type containers while the pest control company does their series of treatments, and that can take some time. So often people are living out of, you know, trash bags for several weeks or longer.
GROSS: So if you're using a dryer, what heat does it need to be at to kill the bugs?
Prof. POTTER: Well, basically if you take a bedbug and you put him in a container and you heat that container, which could be your clothes dryer up to say, 120 degrees, those bugs will be dead in a matter of, you know, a few minutes or less. And most clothes dryers, if you take a thermometer, you know, an infrared thermometer, and shoot it into a clothes dryer while it's running, usually you're in that range of, you know, 120 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, even at, you know, low to moderate settings. So a clothes dryer is your best friend in de-infesting items that either you choose not to wash or just can't be washed.
So you know, people are throwing out a lot of things unnecessarily and basically, you know, clothing, kids toys, backpacks, sneakers, you know, a lot of that stuff can go into a clothes dryer and be de-infested quite efficiently.
GROSS: Heat treatments are effective if you're throwing your clothes in a dryer. Are there other forms of heat treatments like for your mattress or for the bed frame that could be effective?
Prof. POTTER: There are. Some pest control companies around the country are offering total heat treatments where they literally heat up an entire home or apartment or a hotel room by either bringing in large heaters into the dwelling or running flexible ducts from the outside of the building and pumping heat into the building, hot air. The idea of this is to elevate the temperatures wherever the bedbugs may be hiding to at least a temperature of about 120, 130 degrees, which kills all the life stages.
It can be very effective. It can be very efficient. In other words, rather than battle these infestations for many days or weeks or perhaps months, we can often eliminate the infestation, you know, that day. But the technology is rather costly. It's not unusual to spend an excess of $1,000 or more for a heat treatment, and is not really that widely available throughout the United States.
The equipment is quite costly, so only a relatively small percentage of pest control companies around the nation are currently offering heat treatments. And the other thing is the heat technology doesn't have any residual lasting effect. So if it's an apartment building, for example, you could de-infest, you know, an individual unit of its bedbugs, but if bedbugs are reintroduced into the building, you could have the problem again.
GROSS: And I imagine if you have like art on the walls or a vinyl record collection, that the heat wouldn't be good for that.
Prof. POTTER: Well, there's a short list of things that have to come out of the building, things like medications and chocolates...
Prof. POTTER: ...and bottles of wine that might burst. But surprisingly, most things can stay - computer equipment, electronics can stay, for example. They monitor the temperatures that the heat gets up to, to ensure that they don't get to those levels that can cause damage to most household items. So usually you're not heating the unit to much more than about 140 degrees, which seems high to us but in fact most items won't be damaged at those temperatures.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about bedbugs. My guest, Michael Potter, is a professor of urban entomology at the University of Kentucky. He's not only studied bedbugs, he's the former technical director of the world's largest pest control company.
New York recently passed a law that if you're renting an apartment building, your landlord has to tell you of any infestation that occurred in the building within the past year. So I'm wondering, like, if one apartment has had bedbugs in an apartment building, how likely is it that that will become a building-wide infestation?
Prof. POTTER: Well, it's certainly a possibility. And like all legislation, there's, well, often good elements and some elements that, you know, are a bit questionable. I think that everyone would agree that, you know, people should be entitled to know about things that could potentially cause them harm, particularly if, you know, the probabilities of that are quite high. So, you know, it certainly seem prudent, at least to me, that if a person is moving into an apartment that previously had a bedbug problem, you know, particularly recently, that they should be told that.
I think, you know, there's a lot of questions out there particularly among property managers, you know, what the prudence is of knowing whether there had ever been a bedbug problem anywhere in the entire building because, you know, you could have a, you know, a unit that had a bedbug problem on the 18th floor and you're moving into, you know, a unit that's far removed from that, and maybe the infestation had been long since eliminated, so your risks are actually quite low in that case. But it certainly can create a lot of apprehensions in people.
I expect what's going to happen is, in cities like New York City, as people, tenants tend to realize that bedbugs are, you know, an increasingly common phenomenon, that they'll perhaps sort of take this in stride and that won't be, you know, the decision that determines whether or not they move into that building. But it's going to be interesting to see how this plays out, because I know that there are a lot of concerns among property managers.
GROSS: In one of the publications, I think it was a publication for professional pest control people, you had an article (unintelligible) bedbugs and there was an ad in the magazine that said bedbugs are back and so are your profits.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Create a new revenue stream with the most effective bedbug trap and monitor available. So is this like a payday for exterminators?
Prof. POTTER: Well, it's certainly true that bedbugs have increased the revenues of many pest controls companies around the United States, particularly in the larger metropolitan areas. That said, and I work with pest control companies all over the country and in other countries, and many of them have told me that, you know, they hate bedbugs.
In other words, they love bedbugs because it generates revenue for them, but it is such a maddeningly difficult problem to deal with and it causes a lot of aggravation for pest control companies as well.
GROSS: So bedbugs are a real nuisance, they bite you, the bites itch. Do they carry any diseases?
Prof. POTTER: Based on what's known at this point, the answer is no. The main problems with bedbugs appear to be the, you know, the itching, the irritation. And of course any time you have a breakage of the skin from a bite or a wound, you run the risk of secondary infection. But beyond that, the biggest problem is the mental anguish they cause, the stress, the anxiety, the sleeplessness, and of course the financial burden of dealing with them. But at least at this point we don't have the evidence to say that they transmit any diseases.
GROSS: So in one of your articles about the history of bedbugs, you wrote that they basically date back to the beginning of humankind and that there's, like, ancient fossils of bedbugs. What about that little rhyme - sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite - where does that date back to? Do you know like what era that's from?
Prof. POTTER: Well, probably from the 15, 16 hundreds or so. In other words, that term had to do with, years ago, our beds often had...
GROSS: Sleep tight? That term?
Prof. POTTER: Yes. Often had ropes on the bed and the ropes were essentially like a box spring today; they provided support as a person slept. So there was a little wooden dowel that you would tighten or twist that would tighten the individual cords of rope that would allow the sleeping surface to be firmer, so thus sleep tight. And then don't let the bedbugs bite, I assume that was because they were, you know, common back then. But that's where the sleep tight came from.
GROSS: Got it. Okay. Well, Michael Potter, thank you very much for talking with us.
Prof. POTTER: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Michael Potter is the professor of urban entomology at the University of Kentucky. To find detailed instructions on how to make sure your hotel room is free of bedbugs, visit our website, freshair.npr.org.