Bedbugs: A Rental Reality

Early detection and the right treatments can help give these pests the boot

November 9, 2012

Bedbugs simply never crossed her mind.

“I thought it was poison ivy, but it persisted,” says the Rockville, Md., woman, who found red welts on her skin. She declined to give her name because of the nature of her problem. A month later, her boyfriend casually mentioned he’d had bedbugs, and she put two and two together. But by then, the pests had made themselves quite at home in her house.

“I wore clothes and a coat to bed,” she says, “but they traveled to my face to bite me.”

Welcome to Washington’s icky domestic reality. In the past couple of years, bedbugs have been making inroads in the region, following a national trend that shows no sign of abating. A 2012 Terminix report rated Washington the sixth-most bedbug-infested city in the country — up from No. 7 in 2011 — and reports of the critters in public places and in homes are increasingly common. Last month, for example, a cluster of University of Maryland dorms reported an infestation.

As any military strategist will confirm, removing an established invader is a lot harder than preventing one in the first place. Killing the insects is a long process, often requiring months of repeated visits from an exterminator.

The insects — which don’t carry disease but do cause itchy bites — had largely been eradicated in this country after World War II. So why are they back now?

“There’s more international travel, so we’ve been re-infesting with bedbugs from other parts of the world,” says Thomas Henry, a USDA research entomologist.

Bedbugs like to travel. If you stay in a hotel with a serious infestation or have neighbors with a problem, chances are a few of the bugs might find their way to your bedroom. And like little pioneers, they will gradually colonize that space.

It’s important to catch the bugs early. If you’re moving into a rental unit that’s been freshly painted and cleaned, there’s little chance you’ll know they’re there. Ask around: Former residents and neighbors might give you some history. Online resources such as Bedbugregistry.com — which lists buildings that have had recent infestations — could help.

If you think you’ve got bedbugs, undertake a serious inspection of your bed and the area surrounding it. Check the sheets and mattress for blood marks, black fecal matter or the bugs themselves, which as adults are about the size of an apple seed. Lift your mattress, look under box springs and bring a flashlight to check crevices. These guys are good at hiding. “I’ve read that they can fit into a crack as flat as a credit card,” Henry says.

If you only find a few bugs, the problem can probably be managed without professional help — “but there’s a lot of work involved,” says Gerard Brown, the D.C. Department of Health’s program manager for rodent and vector control.

Kill every bug you can find, then wash all of your clothes and bedding in hot water. Invest in a tight cover for your mattress and box spring, available at big-box stores that sell household goods.

If your searches regularly turn up five bugs or more, it’s time for outside help.

“We’re booked every day,” says Michelle Pine, co-owner of Capital K9 Pest Solutions (1001 N. Fillmore St., No. 144, Arlington; 703-399-2414). Capital K9 offers a range of options, from the increasingly popular dog inspections to sniff out the bugs, to chemical treatments or an intense heating process that warms the entire house to more than 120 degrees. Other firms use nontoxic products — although David Hersh, president of pest-control company A Healthy Home (240-351-6604), says that when it comes to bedbugs, “even people committed to the green lifestyle will go with the thermonuclear option.”

The more effective a treatment is the more it usually costs. Filling a house with hot air does the best job of killing the vermin — and costs thousands of dollars.

If the bugs were there when you moved in, or if other units in your building are infested, your landlord may be legally required to pay for treatment. Some landlords just decide it’s better business to pay for eradication than acquire a bad reputation.

That’s how it worked for a man whose Northwest D.C. group house developed a problem last month.

“Our landlord had someone come and check, and they confirmed it,” he says. After the subsequent heat treatment, the bugs seem to be gone. “The landlord paid for everything, and it was definitely more than $3,000.”

That renter, who also chose to remain anonymous, is remarkably philosophical about the bugs. “I’m not so freaked out,” he says. “I just sort of assume this is the price you pay for living in an urban area.”

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