MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro meets someone who sees it happen all too often.
ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: Richard Pollack is a public health entomologist, which means he studies insects.
RICHARD POLLACK: I just found it more interesting to work with things that find me attractive - lice, bedbugs, ticks and so forth. Things that tend to salivate when they get close to us.
DANIEL SHAPIRO: Pollack has researched these tiny creatures for over three decades, including 22 years at the Harvard School of Public Health, but that doesn't mean he spends all his time in the lab. Rather, it means this.
POLLACK: All right, so in this file cabinet here - this disheveled cabinet - this represents just the last month or two or so of specimens sent in for evaluation.
DANIEL SHAPIRO: The specimens are things that people - regular, everyday people - believe to be bugs, and Pollack's self-appointed job is to identify the objects for these strangers. Usually, it's dander or a mass of carpet fibers. Occasionally, there's a bug, but it's usually harmless. Over the years, Pollack has accumulated letters and emails from all over the world.
POLLACK: I have thousands and thousands and thousands.
DANIEL SHAPIRO: And Pollack has replied to every single one. All these pen pals stem from a finding he made years ago. Back in the early '90s, Pollack needed head lice to study in his lab. So he and his colleagues went louse hunting at schools around the country.
POLLACK: We received many, many reports that head lice were readily shared child to child, making these leaps in a single bound from one head to another. And the picture they painted was that I should maybe wear hip boots and bring buckets, that the lice were so abundant.
DANIEL SHAPIRO: But they weren't. It turned out these head lice epicenters were no such thing. Often, Pollack couldn't turn up a single louse.
POLLACK: Yeah. Actually, some of them - it was like fishing stories. You should've been here yesterday, or you should've been here last week.
DANIEL SHAPIRO: It was this finding, that school officials routinely overexaggerate the prevalence of head lice, that threw Pollack center stage. Schools called him up for advice, and parents phoned him. He put together a website, and that just attracted more attention, which is how he's ended up with cabinets packed with papers and a computer stuffed with email from people he's never met. Pollack's inbox folder entitled head lice contains 8,233 messages alone.
POLLACK: I'm writing to you out of sheer desperation since I obviously have the type of lice that is resistant to everything, exclamation point. We have fought these "vermin." There are quotes. I've tried home remedies such as vinegar, Lindane shampoo, olive oil, RID furniture spray, ParaSpray, a French treatment for lice. I seriously contemplate shaving my head. Thank you. Signed, Desperate.
DANIEL SHAPIRO: Some of these individuals suffer from a kind of psychosis called delusional parasitosis. They believe they've become infested with parasites. It can lead to social paralysis and spending vast sums on chemicals aimed at eradicating pests that don't exist.
REBECCA WEIGEL: I thought I had lice and just couldn't get rid of them for a long time, because I would feel them. I'd feel them crawling all around my head. I'd feel them on me.
DANIEL SHAPIRO: Rebecca Weigel of Brockton, Massachusetts, worried nonstop about lice for over a year. She said that sending Pollack samples became something of an addiction for her.
WEIGEL: As time went on, he would be like, go relax with your kids, go have fun. He was always very, like, reassuring.
DANIEL SHAPIRO: Were you surprised?
WEIGEL: I was surprised. You know, one time I read it, and it was so thoughtful. And, you know, I was just crying at the end because he sees how much it's, like, destroying my life. It's nice to know somebody is rooting you on.
POLLACK: I'm probably 5 percent entomologist and 95 percent therapist. From a public health perspective, if I can prevent somebody from doing something terribly unwise, I will.
DANIEL SHAPIRO: Pollack recently left his position at Harvard to open his own business. He consults with companies about suspected infestations. And, of course, he continues to identify the countless insects - both real and imagined - that people send him.
POLLACK: Oh, isn't nice? You've got friends, not only big two-legged ones, but little six-legged ones as well.
DANIEL SHAPIRO: For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel Shapiro.
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