“Sleep tight—don’t let the bedbugs bite" used to be an innocuous children’s rhyme but these days, it's a nightmarish refrain for a growing number of co-op and condo owners and their building administrators. Virtually unheard of for decades, bedbugs are now making a fierce comeback around the country—and New Jersey is feeling the bite as well.
"Bedbugs have always been around, but they were pretty much eradicated from the United States in the 1940s and '50s” thanks to the widescale use of serious pesticides like Malathion and DDT, says Bill Cowley of Cowley's Pest Control in Neptune City. "But they were very common in all 50 states up until then. People from the WWII generation know what bedbugs are because when they were kids, finding bedbugs in their homes was a common occurrence. That's where that 'Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite' expression comes from."
Just the possibility of a bedbug infestation has the power to spook residents and boards alike, who are not just grossed out, but worried about plummeting property values if prospective buyers get wind of the problem. Some pest control companies are even painting their bedbug service vehicles a generic white because of customer concerns.
According to Cowley, bedbugs re-emerged in the U.S. in the late 1990s, and have been multiplying ever since. "I think we incorporated in 1991," he says, "and we didn't have a bedbug call until about 2004, 2005. So we'd been in the business for almost 15 years before we had client with that particular problem."
And as to why the little blighters have become so widespread in recent years, the pest professionals cite a pair of likely culprits: cheap airfare and stricter pesticide laws. In the late 1990s, international travel became a lot less expensive, so Americans began to travel much more frequently—giving pests a lift home in their luggage and clothing. In previous years, hotel guest rooms were typically treated on a regular basis with powerful residual pesticides—pesticides which aren’t used anymore because they were determined to be a risk to human health.
“Routinely scheduled treatments of baseboards in hotels, motels and apartments were replaced with targeted applications of baits for pests like ants and cockroaches,” Cowley says. “With the absence of the residual pesticide applications, bedbugs were able to travel freely and safely from the luggage to the bed, successfully beginning an infestation. We pretty much eradicated them here, but the rest of the world still had a bedbug problem—and the rest of the world was bringing their bedbugs here, and we were traveling to other parts of the world and bringing them back.”
The Nature of the Beast
Bedbugs are tiny nocturnal insects roughly the size of an apple seed, and feed exclusively on human blood. They are hearty, adaptable, and tough to catch. An adult female bedbug can lay between one and five eggs daily, and they hatch about a week later.
Blood diet aside, Cowley says that bedbugs aren't related to either fleas or ticks. "They're actually related to plant bugs, believe it or not," he says. "Bugs that most people are not familiar with, like box elder bugs, lace bugs, assassin bugs, and what we call water striders. It's not like 'Oh, yeah, they're like a spider or they're related to a roach or they're related to an ant.' They're really kind of unique."
Bedbugs also don’t seek a blood meal every day, and can go several days—and even up to a month or more, if necessary—between each meal. Some experts say they can live for up to a year without feeding.
If you suspect your home has fallen victim to the pests, the first place to start looking for evidence of infestation is, unsurprisingly, somewhere in or close to your bed or where you rest. According to the pros, the most common places infestations are confirmed are the folds and seams of the mattress or the box springs. The bed frame and headboard are also favored areas, as are nightstands.
While experts don’t believe that bedbugs carry diseases, they can cause an allergic reaction in some which causes a red blotch or welt and makes the skin itch, much like a mosquito bite. But not everyone reacts to being bitten, which means that yes—you could be a slumbering feast for bedbugs and not even know it. Gross.
And that grossness highlights perhaps the most damaging effect of a bedbug infestation: psychological distress.
“These things [bedbugs] invade our privacy, they invade our bedroom, they invade our bed—the one place that we want to go,” says one exterminator. “When we’re done after a hard day of work we want to go home. And when we're home, the place we relax most is in bed. People are losing sleep … We have people sleeping on the living room floor because they're afraid to go into the bedroom. Personally, I've never seen anything as devastating to people that maintain their homes. They're trying to do the right thing in life and because of some travel or some visitor, they pick up a bedbug infestation. Really and truly—people lose their minds over this, as it affects them so greatly.”
Cowley agrees. "They don't transmit disease, but people get stressed out over them like you wouldn't believe. And stress is unhealthy. I've seen people who have had this problem who are just beside themselves, especially moms with children in the house. The thought of these things, taking blood meals from them or their children, you wouldn't believe the state of mind that these people are in."
All the pest experts stress that bedbugs do not discriminate based on one’s social status or the cleanliness of their home. Infestations can occur in five-star hotels and million-dollar estates, as well as homeless shelters and everything in between, regardless of the existing sanitary conditions. An infestation can even start by someone accepting a delivery of something that has bedbugs or bedbug eggs in it. The bugs can then take over the condo unit and continue moving to other units in the association. It's this adaptability and secretive behavior, coupled with a lack of public awareness, that has enabled bedbugs to move very efficiently from one dwelling to another, and has facilitated their rapid dispersal throughout the country.
Fortunately, there are a few approaches that seem to take the starch out of the bugs. For example, bedbugs can’t survive temperatures hotter than 122 degrees. Once the temperature rises, the bedbugs—along with their eggs—die. So an exterminator and his team bring heaters and generators to bedbug-infested locations, and they heat the entire condo to 140 degrees for four to six hours. Once it reaches the optimum temperature, they take a fan and move the air flow around the house into every crack and crevice.
The treatment is environmentally-friendly and no chemicals are used. However, it’s not cheap: heat treatment usually costs about $1,400 per unit, according to one exterminator.
Another method is a chemical application to all known hiding places of the bugs—which includes just about any crack or crevice in a given room. This method costs about $350 to $400 for the first treatment, but many follow-up treatments may be needed.
“Our insecticides are pretty good at killing them and their eggs on contact,” says Douglas Stern of Stern Environmental Group in Secaucus. “The issue is the residual—once the chemical dries, there are problems with the bugs developing resistance to it. We have one chemical called Phantom that has no known resistance, but it’s very slow acting and the insect has to come in contact with it for a long period of time in order for it to work. So you really need chemicals plus something else. The 'something else' could be heat, fumigation, or freezing. We can use CO2 to freeze them dead. The trade name for that method is called Cryonite, and so far it's been very effective in killing bedbugs and their eggs."
As for how long it takes to be rid of a bedbug infestation, Stern says "It depends on the severity of the infestation and on the amount of clutter in the home. In a hotel room, where we have access to the whole room and no clutter, so it can be gone in a day because we can actually spray every area of the hotel room. But if you’re in an apartment with lots and lots of clutter, we may not have access to everything. What if they’re in your pants pocket in your closet? How are we going to treat that?"
"This is not something for the do-it-yourself crowd, adds Cowley. "It's a very difficult problem to get rid of. If you start tearing everything apart and you really don't know what you're doing, you can end up making the problem a lot worse. You need to get a professional in right away to go through the bed, and the area around it to see if it really is bedbugs. If it is, and you work with and cooperate with your professionals, they'll tell you what to do from there to treat the problem."
No matter what, "The earlier the infestation is caught, the faster it can be treated," says Stern."
When bedbugs are discovered in a unit of a condo complex, they raise a host of legal questions: the chief one being responsibility for the cost of the eradication—the unit where the bedbugs are initially discovered, or the entire condo?
“One of the problems with bedbugs is that without a concerted effort to deal with the problem you're never going to get rid of them,” says attorney Jeffrey Turk, a partner at Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks, P.C., in Braintree, Massachusetts. “If I treat my common areas and every unit owner treats their unit, and one unit owner doesn’t cooperate, you’ll never get rid of them. The bedbugs will go to the untreated unit, and when the treatment is done, the bedbugs will go back into the other units.”
For that reason, Turk recommends that “associations deal with bedbug extermination as a common expense” and oversee treatment of every unit along with the common areas. And if a unit owner refuses to cooperate, Turk says the condo can fall back on the legal authority granted to it by its documents.
“Most condominium documents allow the association to access the unit to perform maintenance and repair. That’s something that you should do and often have to do. You not only have to treat the apartment but you have to treat all the things in the apartment. We’ve had cases where we’ve gone to court and gotten a court order requiring the unit owner to adhere to the requirements of the exterminator.”
Turk has a number of recommendations to bring bedbug infestations under control and limit condo liability.
* Respond quickly to tenant/owner complaints and keep a detailed written record of the complaints and condo’s response.
* Bring in a professional, licensed exterminator who has a proven track record of eradicating bedbugs, and follow his or her recommendations. Turk notes that following an expert’s advice can provide something of a safe harbor from liability claims.
* Obtain a court order, if necessary, to secure the cooperation of individual tenants and owners in treating their units.
* Consider adding a lease addendum or amending the condominium documents to proactively confirm the obligations of tenants and owners to report bedbugs and remediate infestations.
And finally, Turk recommends that owners be educated about precautions to avoid bedbugs in the first place. After trips, especially overseas, Turk says owners should inspect their luggage and clothes for bedbugs.
Owners should also be extra careful about buying second-hand furniture and clothing. “The best strategy by far for dealing with bedbugs is to avoid infestations in the first place,” Turk says.
Jim Douglass is the managing editor of New England Condominium magazine, a Yale Robbins’ publication. Freelance writer Danielle Braff contributed to this report, along with The New Jersey Cooperator’s David Chiu.