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L.A.'s slow trickle of bedbugs may turn into a flood

County officials are already confirming as many as 55 bedbug cases a month, but exterminators fear that holiday travel and gift-giving will cause the problem to explode.

December 04, 2010|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times

New Yorkers aren't the only ones coping with creepy, crawly bloodsuckers.

Bedbugs have turned up in the Golden Triangle retail district of Beverly Hills and inside homes and apartments in more than two dozen local communities.

"It's really all over the county," said Angelo J. Bellomo, director of environmental health for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

After noticing an increase in reports from tenants, property owners and businesses, public health officials last spring began tracking reports of bedbugs and later posted public notices about how to prevent and treat infestations. They're confirming as many as 55 reports of the lentil-size, brown critters each month.

Across the United States, bedbugs have turned up in posh hotels, movie theaters, churches, hospitals, dormitories and high-end clothing stores. Fears of hotel infestations, particularly in New York, have thrown the travel industry into a tizzy, and national "bedbug summits" have drawn standing-room-only crowds.

The pests are "very good hitchhikers" that can be transported on luggage, clothing, beds, furniture and other items, said L.A. County Public Health Director Jonathan E. Fielding. The bugs also hide out in draperies, throw pillows and even electronics, and adults can live more than a year without feeding.

Now, with the holiday season upon us, one commercial exterminator has warned that the number of reports might spike because of increased travel.

Health officials say heightened public awareness of the pests might be playing a role in the uptick in reports in Southern California, where the problem appears to be far less prevalent than in New York, Ohio and other hotbeds.

Over the summer, plentiful sightings of bedbugs had New Yorkers' skin crawling. The Empire State Building called in fumigators after an employee carried bedbugs into the basement on his clothes. That was after bedbugs were seen at a movie theater in Times Square, the Brooklyn district attorney's office and a Victoria's Secret store in Lenox Hill.

Infestations were common in the United States before World War II, but improvements in hygiene and the widespread use of DDT all but eradicated the pests here in 1940s and '50s. They remained common, however, in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

Global travel and immigration get much of the blame for the bedbug resurgence in this country, entomologists say. In a recent National Pest Management Assn. survey, exterminators also blamed overcrowding of cities, unregulated sales and donations of secondhand clothing and mattresses, and reliance on short-lived chemicals that don't fully eradicate an infestation. Even DDT proved an impermanent solution after the pests developed a resistance to the chemical, which the U.S. later banned for environmental reasons.

In a September Rasmussen Reports poll, 20% of those surveyed said news of bedbug infestations had prompted them to change their plans to go to certain public places.

The good news is that "bedbugs don't transmit diseases," said Richard Cooper, an entomologist and vice president of the website BedBugCentral.com. Many people, however, suffer allergic reactions that can increase the risk of secondary infection. Of greater concern can be the psychological effect, he said.

"It's very difficult to go to sleep at night when you know you become a slab of meat to feed on," he said. "People have anxiety and start isolating themselves. There's a huge emotional impact that can't be underestimated."

Crawling atop a sleeping host, a bedbug stabs its mouth tube into a victim, injects numbing saliva and anticoagulant, probes for a blood vessel, and then gorges on the warm, red fluid. The hapless prey, oblivious to the attack, wakes hours later to a constellation of itchy red welts.

San Diego apartment dweller Carissa Washington had grown up thinking that "sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite" referred to mythical creatures that parents invoked to help children slip into slumber. But she wasn't imagining the prickly bumps that irritated her skin many mornings and eventually caused her to dread falling asleep. After she nabbed some of the pests skittering across her bed, an exterminator confirmed the worst.

"It makes you want to pull your hair out," said Washington, 25. "It's never-ending, like a Freddy Krueger movie."

Adult bedbugs are reddish-brown, with oval, flattened bodies. They tend to congregate on mattresses, box springs, bed frames, headboards, floorboards and peeling paint, leaving dark spots of dried excrement. Eggshells and brownish molted skin are other telltale signs, along with rusty or reddish blood smears on bed sheets that indicate an engorged bug has been crushed.

"The bedbug for its part wants to get in, get the bite and get away without being detected, so it's to its advantage to not do anything to wake you up or have you scratch or slap in your sleep," said Steve Heydon, senior museum scientist at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis.

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