Going to the Mattress

Don't let the bed bugs bite: The Washington Sketch goes undercover and between the sheets at the EPA's National Bed Bug Summit in Virginia. Video by Gaby Bruna/washingtonpost.com
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The enemy is stealthy and bloodthirsty. It attacks innocent victims without warning, while they sleep.

Fortunately, the federal government is on the case. In a hotel ballroom in Crystal City yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency convened the first-ever National Bed Bug Summit -- a veritable Yalta Conference for the species Cimex lectularius. With help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and even the Pentagon, the EPA assembled scientists, state and local officials, and a colony of exterminators to buzz about such topics as "Bed Bug Perspectives," "Bed Bug Basics" and "Government Responses to Bed Bugs."

"These insects can have a life-altering impact," warned panelist Richard Cooper of Cooper Pest Solutions.

"They are showing up in some of the finest hotels," contributed Saul Hernandez, an aide to the congressman who introduced H.R. 6068, "The Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite Act of 2008."

All this for an insect the size of an apple seed that has a painless bite and is not known to spread disease?

University of Kentucky entomologist Mike Potter called the bedbug nothing less than "the most difficult, challenging pest problem of our generation." Tossing out phrases such as "doomsday scenario" and "perfect storm," he ventured: "In my opinion, we are not going to get out of this thing" -- the bedbug thing -- until we "allow the pest-control industry to go to war."

The layman might think that in an age of bin Laden and Ahmadinejad, not to mention pandemic flu and poisonous peanut butter, the threat posed by the tiny insect might be rather manageable. But that is not the prevailing view at this week's National Bed Bug Summit.

"A year ago I thought bedbugs were a thing from a couple of centuries ago and maybe in a children's bedtime rhyme," testified Joan Quigley, a New Jersey state representative. "I had no idea they were a modern scourge." But when she scratched the surface, she found the bedbug matter to be "a can of worms," so to speak. "I had no idea how many stakeholders there were in the bedbug issue."

An official from the New Jersey Apartment Association (Jersey is a hotbed of bedbug activity) concurred. "I hesitate to use the words 'It became a sexy issue,' but it became a cause celebre," said the official, Conor Fennessy. "It kind of got legs for a while."

Actually, six legs and two antennae, according to the eight-inch drawing of a bedbug on the sign outside the Sheraton ballroom yesterday announcing "National Bed Bug Summit -- Please Sign In." The sign-in area was well stocked with coffee (sleep disruption is common in bedbug circles). Inside the ballroom, 200 people, some in military uniform, others in Orkin Man-style uniform, listened as Lois Rossi, from the EPA's pesticide division, spoke of "the size of the problem we have with bedbug infestations."

Bedbugs had been all but eradicated decades ago, panelist Potter explained, but thanks to increased travel, pesticide bans and resistance, we've "let bedbugs get back in the game."

Now, said Hernandez, the congressional staffer, "bedbugs invade luggage, burrowing deep into clothes, and are transported back home, where they infest their victims' homes . . . and the affected people have no choice but to trash their furniture, clothes and linen."

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