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Bedbugs Bite Big Apple in Global Epidemic

January 22, 2006

NEW YORK — Legions of tiny blood-sucking bugs are munching their way through the Big Apple, making this the city that never sleeps … tight. Bedbugs are back, and they’re not just rearing their rust-colored heads in New York City. Authorities say it’s a global crisis: Exterminators who handled one or two bedbug calls a year are now getting that many in a week, according to the National Pest Management Association.

“There’s an epidemic going on throughout the country, and New York seems to be the hotbed,” said Jeffrey Eisenberg, a pest control expert.

The elusive critters avoid light and attack in the middle of the night. About the size of an apple seed, a bedbug hides among cracks and crevices in furniture and walls, and can disappear into the edge of a picture frame or between buttons on an alarm clock.

They invade even the cleanest apartments and swankiest neighborhoods, including Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where a city councilwoman is calling for a citywide bedbug task force.

“We’ve always had pests in New York City – we have rats, cockroaches, etcetera, but bedbugs are new,” said Councilwoman Gail Brewer. “We’re not doing a good job focusing on it.”

The pests are efficient and active travelers, often hitching a ride on people’s clothing and jumping from host to host when people brush up against each on the subway, in elevators or on crowded streets.

Bedbugs are turning up in hospitals, schools, movie theaters, health clubs. Recent reports put them in a a New Jersey college dorm and a Los Angeles hotel – where one guest filed a $5 million lawsuit. A New Yorker and his landlord wound up in court over an infestation in his Lower East Side apartment, where he fruitlessly tried everything to get rid of the relentless buggers.

Eisenberg, who owns the Pest Away exterminating company in Manhattan, said bedbugs are spreading “like wildfire” through the city. And treating infestation is a costly, time-consuming process.

Belongings must be removed from the home to be thoroughly washed or dry-cleaned, followed by meticulous vacuuming, before the exterminator can even begin his work. Several home visits are often needed.

People who have bedbugs often never see them alive. The only signs are pepper-like spots of their fecal matter, specks of dried blood on bedsheets, and of course, the bites. The scourge is nearly impossible to eradicate; the creatures can go a year without feeding, they reproduce rapidly and don’t die easily.

“Now it’s just us against these bugs,” said Sofia Sapinha, a 20-year-old junior at a New Jersey college where her dorm room has been infested since September.

Between calls to campus officials and visits from the exterminator, she and her roommate have tried their own tactics, including covering her mattress in a zippered plastic cover and greasing bedposts with Vaseline to keep the bugs from crawling up.

But nothing has worked. This week, two nights after they returned from holiday break, she was bitten again – on the face. The bugs, it seems to her, are winning the war and becoming quite bold as a result.

“We found one this week in the middle of my bed, it was just crawling up as if it owned the place,” she said.

Not even the professionals feel like they have a handle on battling the epidemic, said Eisenberg, who returned this weekend from a conference where bedbugs were a top priority.

The current generation of exterminators has been caught unaware by these pests, which were all but dormant for decades. The recent comeback is attributed to several factors, primarily an increase in global travel and the banning of potent pesticides like DDT.

“We feel like we’re starting from scratch,” Eisenberg said. “The only thing we know is that we don’t know anything.”

In New York City, Brewer wants to create a task force that would monitor the epidemic and develop policy solutions to curb the spread of the bloodsuckers. On Sunday, she announced new legislation that also seeks to halt some common mattress industry practices that exacerbate the problem.

The legislation calls for a ban on reconditioning mattresses – essentially taking old ones, refurbishing them and selling them like new, often spreading the bugs into stores and homes.

It would also require separate transport of old and new mattresses, which is common. A mattress purchase often includes the removal of the old one, and when several used and new mattresses mingle in the truck, it becomes a bedbug free-for-all.

A similar bill was introduced last year but died when the council session expired.




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