Not too long after Clarice Williams moved into her one bedroom apartment on 13th Aveue and MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland, she woke up itchy and dotted with red spots. Her back, neck, torso and arms were bumpy with tiny bite marks.
As she leaned in to make her bed, she noticed that her sheets were speckled.
Suspicious, Williams pulled the sheets down off of her mattress and found that it was crawling with tiny brown bugs.
“I felt paralyzed,” recounted Williams, “so disgusted and afraid that I couldn’t move.”
The pests Williams discovered in her bed were bedbugs, which about fifty years ago were nearly eradicated in the United States due to the insecticide DDT.
Though it was banned in the 1960s for environmental reasons, DDT was commonly used in the late 1940s and 1950s to rid infestations in boarding rooms, houses and hotels.
Entomologists are not sure what has caused the recent surge in bedbugs. Some speculate that it is linked to the reduction in strong pesticides that once kept all pests under control. Today’s pest control is more likely to target one particular species, whereas in the past exterminators used products and methods designed to kill a wide variety of insects.
But others say globalization is to blame. While bedbugs were mostly eliminated in more developed parts of the world, less developed countries continue to be pestered by them.
“As immigration and international travel increase, so do the numbers of infestations we see on a yearly basis,” said Gregory Jones, a 10 year EcoLab technician.
Bedbugs, scientifically named Cimex lectularius, have increasingly set up shop in private homes, apartment complexes, hotels and college dormitories. In the spring semester of 2006, students living in the dorms at McDaniel College and the University of Maryland, College Park discovered bedbugs in their rooms.
Though officials of both colleges refused to comment for this story, the links to informational pages about bedbug infestations on their websites demonstrate that they are seeking to educate their student bodies about the pests in hopes that they will not continue to be a problem.
Ruth Sears, administrative assistant in the Housing Management Dining Services department at Mills College said that the main precautionary measure Mills takes against bedbug infestations is using plastic covered mattresses. These mattresses are about $10 to $15 more expensive than non-plastic-covered mattresses, Sears said.
According to Sears, there have not been any complaints about bedbugs in the dorms on campus. “We’ve had complaints of fleas in the past two years, but that’s about it,” Sears said.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I got bedbugs, ’cause I’ve heard they’re almost impossible to get rid of,” said Mills freshwoman Lisa Johnson, who lives in Warren Olney Hall.
Luckily, students at Mills can take comfort in knowing that their school has an account with EcoLab, a pest control service.
“EcoLab comes out once a week, more often than that if I call them for an emergency,” said Pat Brown of Campus Facilities at Mills.
Brown said that Mills pays $2,793.00 every month for its account with EcoLab. Students like Johnson believe that it’s well worth the cost.
“That’s comforting to know,” Johnson said.
Brown said that she hasn’t known of any bedbug problems on campus, “[EcoLab does] a real good job, we’re real pleased.”
Just because students at Mills may not have any problems with the bugs while at school, like everybody else they must take caution not to become hosts to the bugs while traveling or staying in hotels and motels.
Oval-shaped and less than a quarter of an inch in length, the brown-colored insects generally inhabit areas close to their food source. They can get into crevices as thin as a fingernail and often hide out under mattresses and bed frames, in wall cracks and behind picture frames. Clutter around a room offers additional places for the bedbugs to hide and increases the difficulty of eliminating them once they have become established.
Bedbugs often travel with their hosts as stowaways in their luggage and clothing. Residents of apartment buildings must remain aware of the threat of getting bedbugs from their neighbors.
Williams, mentioned at the outset, said that her neighbors told her that an adjacent unit had a bedbug infestation that might have been spreading. Williams washed all of her clothing and threw away her mattress, bedding and most of her furniture after contacting her rental office and an exterminator. She has not moved back into that apartment, though the carpeting was torn up wall-to-wall and exterminators have treated it many times.
“When I returned to pack my things after the carpet was gone and the exterminators had come, I saw one of them little bugs just strolling its behind down the wall. I ain’t moving back in there. I’m spooked,” Williams said.
Although experts are divided in their explanations for bedbugs, the good news is that the bugs are not known to pose any health threat. Unlike mosquitoes that can transmit malaria and the West Nile virus, bedbugs have not been linked to anything more serious than itchy red welts that show up on their victim’s skin after a feast.
“There are no studies that have been done that show they vector anything,” said Bill Brogdon, an entomologist with the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The increase in bedbug infestations has given rise to new pest-control products that are easy for the average consumer to use. Bug Patrol, for example is marketed as a bedbug eliminator that is good for long-term protection. Its ads boast that it’s 100% natural and completely harmless to humans, animals, fish, fowl and food. It ranges in cost from $39.95 to $99.95.