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Best bedbug essays get the treatment

A charity effort aims to help some needy victims take the bite out of their holidays.

December 15, 2010|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • Volunteer Keith Willoughby, left, and Bedbug Central entomologist Jeffrey White move donated goods to a makeshift bedbug-killing oven created by entomologists.
Volunteer Keith Willoughby, left, and Bedbug Central entomologist Jeffrey… (Calvin Allen / Bedbug Central )

Reporting from Randolph, N.J. — Charlette Luna knew she was taking a chance when she let an elderly relative move in to escape a bedbug-infested home. "But I couldn't let her get eaten alive," said Luna, whose fears soon were realized.

One day, she spotted a bloated little bug — "like a blown-up tick, but with legs," she says — on a chair in her New Jersey home. She sprayed the chair, uncorking a gusher of bugs and sending Luna on a search for help that earned her one of the season's oddest holiday gifts: a free bedbug treatment.

With money tight, bedbugs biting from coast to coast and treatments costing a few hundred to several thousand dollars, entomologists with BedBug Central, an information clearinghouse about all things bedbug-related, last month invited the needy and infested to submit essays explaining why they should get a free service.

The letters, including Luna's, poured in, their opening lines ranging from horrifying to heart-wrenching, from desperate to dignified.

"PLEASE HELP!!!!!" "We need a miracle!" "My daughter needs her mom back!" "Living in turmoil!"

One man included a photograph of the tent he had pitched in his living room, where he and his fiancee sleep to try to avoid being gnawed on at night. "We are all getting bit, especially the poor cat (Shadow)," lamented a woman named Sheila. "My story is somewhat of a Nightmare on Elm Street horror remake," wrote another woman, launching into a tortured tale that included the image of her struggling to sleep on an air mattress with her husband and three children.

This is the second year that BedBug Central, working with pest control companies nationwide, has offered the free services, which began Dec. 4 in suburban New Jersey.

Jeffrey White, a research entomologist with BedBug Central, dreamed up the charity idea last year after witnessing a financially strapped family facing a bedbug infestation.

"There really are no affordable treatments when you have someone struggling to make ends meet," White said.

Rarely does one treatment eliminate a bedbug problem.

"It requires several, usually, but this is intended to reduce the problem for the holiday period, so people can focus on what's important to them," he said while showing Mary Jo Welch and Keith Willoughby of Interfaith Furnishings in Randolph, N.J., how to kill bedbugs that might creep in with the furniture they collect for the needy.

Using insulating material, thermometers, space heaters and fans, White and BedBug Central Vice President Rich Cooper built a small enclosure, moved several mattresses, chairs and other items inside, then sealed it shut with tape. A thermometer slowly ticked upward, past 120 degrees, the temperature at which Cooper said any bedbugs soon would die.

Interfaith submitted one of 230 applications received nationwide, compared with about 20 last year. The increase reflects the increased publicity of this year's campaign as well as the growing bedbug problem, which has no single cause. Entomologists say factors include changes in pesticide use, public ignorance of bedbugs and their habits, and the growth in global travel. Cooper picked up bedbugs on a business trip in Las Vegas, despite his hyper-vigilance.

Calvin Allen, a BedBug Central spokesman, said that reading the essays and choosing winners — if anyone with bedbugs can be called that — was "brutal. So many people need help."

Eventually, 27 free treatments will be offered, most in the New York area but some as distant as San Diego, if pest control companies in the area are willing to donate services. Interfaith Furnishings, operating out of a large donated space, and Luna were among the first to receive their gifts.

Interfaith has never had an infestation, but Welch said the risks were so great that they had to stop accepting donated mattresses, even though they are the No. 1 request of people in need.

"We try very hard to fill those needs, but we can't afford to be giving away mattresses that are then going to go to waste," she said as furniture baked in the makeshift bedbug death chamber.

Compared with many letters, Luna's was subdued, but her story was typical of many victims of bedbugs. Embarrassed to tell people about the problem, Luna and her husband first tried to fix it themselves.

"We steamed everything — rugs, mattresses. We washed all the linens in hot water," said Luna, who at night was haunted by the thought of the blood-sucking beasts crawling across her skin and feeding on her.

Finally, she confided in a friend in her church choir. The friend had seen a notice about the BedBug Central competition and urged Luna to apply. "I just put my little statement out there and said a prayer," said Luna, whose treatment lasted about three hours.

"You feel embarrassed because you feel like there's something wrong with you," said Luna, who didn't want to name the relative who gave her bedbugs because of the stigma, but who learned from the experts who treated her home that anyone can get them.

This month, the Juicy Couture flagship store on Manhattan's posh Fifth Avenue had bedbugs, and the United Nations has suffered from them. On Friday, a bedbug-sniffing dog was scheduled to prowl the U.N.'s media section, which already has undergone bedbug treatments.

"Nothing is bedbug-proof," said White, adding that all 50 states report them. And now that they are here in force, he warned, they cannot be eradicated — just controlled. "It's going to be part of society," he said.

tina.susman@latimes.com

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