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Don't let the bedbugs bite; The little suckers are back

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 11:59 AM

If evolution really worked in our favor, bedbugs would be as large as melons, with neon carapaces and a courteous deportment, announcing their presence every time a newcomer entered a hotel room. Alas, the vampirish insects are neither obvious nor polite: They're tiny and reddish-brown like freckles, and masters of subterfuge.

At hotels haut to low, exposure to the pests can be higher than at home, because of the rapid turnover of guests who act as a private bug delivery service. In addition, the guaranteed food source - see above - encourages the insects to stay. The bed bug-traveler cycle is endless. But it can be broken.

"People need to be proactive," said Joseph A. McInerney, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. "This is something that we're going to have to live with for a while."

After a dormant period following World War II, Cimex lectularius is back. In the 1990s, the insects started reemerging in overcrowded urban settings and of late have catapulted to star bugdom status, surfacing in hotels nationwide, in Manhattan retail stores, in Broadway theaters and in other environments that involve numerous people in a semi-somnolent state.

"They're all around," said Wayne White, a board-certified entomologist with American Pest in Takoma Park, who attributes the rise in bedbugs to the uptick in international travel and a shift in pesticide usage. "They're just finally showing up in places that are more public."

In the 2010 Comprehensive Global Bed Bug Study, conducted by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky, 95 percent of the 1,000 participating pest-management pros said that they had encountered an infestation in the past year, up from 25 percent a decade ago. The experts reported the highest incidences in private residences, followed by hotels and motels, college dorms, various modes of transportation, laundry facilities and movie theaters. In late August, pest control company Terminix released a list of the 15 bedbuggiest cities in the United States. New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati and Chicago filled the top five spots; Washington ranked ninth.

"We have 3.5 million people in the United States staying in hotels every night, and the number of people bitten is minuscule," said McInerney. "But when it happens to you, it's a big deal."

To learn how to detect and repel bedbugs on the road, I met with White at the company's Takoma Park office, then later in a hotel room where he performed a live bedbug inspection.

At our initial meeting, we sat in a brightly lit room with vials of bedbugs representing the various stages of life, from the dots of eggs to the flat, apple seed-size adults.

White explained that the insects are nocturnal and typically cluster in dark, cave-like shelters, such as the seams of mattresses and the corners of headboards. They are drawn to the body heat, scent and carbon dioxide exhalation of animals and prefer crawling along humans' hairless surface to bushwhacking through fur. They work best in undisturbed areas, such as your bed in the middle of the night, when you are deep (read: immobile) in sleep. Able to crawl 14 inches in five minutes, the bugs will travel for food, crossing the room for a meal. For greater distances, they rely on hitchhiking in luggage, shipping containers and your child's Teddy bear.

"The more you travel," said White, "the higher the likelihood that you will bring them home."

To help you avoid unwanted souvenirs - red welts and/or six-legged stowaways - White laid out a multipart strategy that covers the before, during and after periods of your vacation. The battle against bedbugs starts now.

Before your trip

Prevention starts at home. Even if you've never seen the bugs in your boudoir, White recommends sealing your mattress and box spring in clear plastic or vinyl coverings. Choose a mattress model without handles or seams, eliminating hiding spots. Major retailers such as Walgreens and Sears sell the encasements. He also suggests placing the legs of the bed inside an insect interceptor, a ringed plastic saucer that creates a slippery surface as treacherous as Everest after an icestorm. The container traps the bugs so that they can't venture north to your mattress.

"This will help you inspect and detect the problem," said White. It will also stanch migration from your house to the wide, wide world.

Also, before booking a hotel, check the Bed Bug Registry (bedbugregistry.com) for reports. A recent submission for the Trump Plaza and Casino in Atlantic City, for instance, stated, "Got bit to death here."

At the hotel

Before sniffing the toiletries or perusing the minibar, conduct a bed inspection. Prep your station: Slip on disposable plastic gloves and keep a strong flashlight at the ready. A magnifying glass with LED illumination will also come in handy; the eggs are pinprick-small.

Start with the headboard, a favorite hiding spot. Many hotel headboards aren't attached to the bed but hang on brackets like a utilitarian piece of art. Lay the piece on the bed and inspect the wall for the telltale signs of infestation: black specks (the - ick - fecal matter), molten sheddings (like pencil shavings) or the bugs themselves (in their various stages of life). Also scan the corners of the headboard.

If the board does not disassemble without heavy machinery, run a piece of white paper (try the breakfast-order card) along the wall and board. The idea is to scrape up some bugs or force them out of their redoubt.

Now, it's time to attack the bed.

Start with the duvet and the sheets, studying them top to bottom before pulling them back to reveal the next layer. Inspect the seams, edges and any puckering sections of fabric. Fortunately, most hotels dress their beds in snowy white linens, so the bugs will stand out.

Rather than tearing off the sheets, fold them in the middle - the easier to remake the bed. When you reach the mattress, remove the cover, paying special attention to the folds, seams, piping and other sneaky hideouts.

Next, slide off the mattress and inspect the box spring. (If it's too heavy, push it aside enough to expose as much of the bottom foundation as possible.) Check the underside, and don't forget the corner protectors (if they are opaque, peel them off). "Take the box spring out of the frame and look around the base," advises White. Because of their claws, bedbugs prefer fabric they can cling to, but scan the metal frame just in case.

Finally, remove the dust ruffles or, if they're stapled to the bed, flash your light in the folds and along the edges.

At this point, your bed will look as if it has been mauled by a mercurial Sandman. But on a more positive note: If you haven't uncovered any evidence of uninvited guests, they're most likely not inhabiting your lair.

"If I hadn't found anything on the headboard, mattress, box spring or frame, I'd end the inspection," said White. "I'm not gonna spend an extra hour worth of my time."

However, if you're especially concerned about bites (about 50 percent of people break out in itchy welts; the other half have no reaction) or are an entomophobe, broaden your search to the outlying furnishings. Look in the drawers of the nightstand, for instance, among the creases of the curtains and deep in the closet.

If you do find evidence, go to the front desk and ask for a room change. Also, inquire about the property's pest-management plan. If they don't have one, the whole hotel could be infested. Start racking your brain for the name of that hotel you passed right off the exit.

If you agree to a reassignment, avoid the rooms adjacent to and across from your original one, as well as those on the floors directly above and below it. It's also within your rights to ask the manager to conduct an inspection of your new room. Use this downtime to toast your CSI-caliber skills.

Unpacking and storage

The worst place to keep your clothes is on the bed. The bugs will take one look at those soft warm piles and think, "Our upholstered chariot awaits."

Create some distance between the bed and your luggage. Store your bag atop the armoire, for instance, or in the main room of a suite. Avoid the luggage rack, which White calls "a way station" for bugs, because of the constant transference of guests' bags. The middle of the room is also preferable to the periphery.

To really safeguard your belongings, slip your luggage into a plastic or vinyl cover, preferably one with a small-toothed zipper (harder for them to slip through) and a latch to secure the closure. Avoid products with seams and handles, which bugs can burrow into. Another option: Store your clothes in Ziploc bags. You can keep them in your luggage or in the bureau, just remember to always zip that loc after use.

The closet is also a potential hazard, thanks to those dark, cozy corners. If you want to leave your shoes on the floor, encase them in sealed plastic bags. For clothes that need to stay vertical, hang them on the shower rod. The bathroom, with its slick surfaces, is a veritable safety zone. In fact, if you really want to outsmart the bugs, sleep in the tub and stash your clothes in the sink.

After checking out

Whether you're returning home or moving on to another hotel, it's wise to hit the laundry room - the dryer specifically. Bed bugs can't survive the heat.

White suggests tossing your clothes into a dryer set on low or medium. Let it spin for 15 to 30 minutes and don't think about what the lint basket might catch. (Washing, by the way, won't do the deed: 33 percent of bedbugs and a whopping 98 percent of eggs survive a normal cycle.) In the heat of summer, you can also leave your bag roasting in the car. A road trip they'll never forget.

Once home, leave your suitcase in the garage and store it in a large leaf or garbage bag between trips. If you are a frequent traveler, you might consider the PackTite, a portable heating unit that disinfects your luggage and its contents. The more DIY method is to toss your belongings in the dryer, and rest assured that those bed bugs' traveling days are not just numbered but over.

For more information on bedbug prevention: www.pestworld.org or www.ahla.com.

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