Bed bugs are here, and there.

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Jun
20

BY AMY CALDER, Staff Writer for Kennebec Journal

 

Every week, people come into Raenae Moore’s office, complaining that their apartment is infested with bedbugs.

“They’re upset and they bring pictures of the actual bedbugs which are all over the place,” said Moore, general assistance administrator for the city of Augusta. “They bring in pictures of the bites on the children and have no idea what to do.”

Moore says there are dozens of apartments infested with bedbugs in about 15 buildings in the city.

“I watch grown men come in the office and cry because they are traumatized by it,” Moore said.

Bedbugs are a problem in central Maine, particularly in areas where people live close to each other, according to Jim Dill, entomologist and pest control specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Bedbugs are in hotels, apartments, theaters, waiting rooms, taxis, buses — any place where people come and go. They are not exclusive to low-income areas, he said.

“You could go to a flop house or a 5-star hotel and find bedbugs in there,” Dill said.

They travel from place to place on luggage or clothing, in rental trucks, furniture, mattresses and other items.

A combination of things has contributed to what Dill calls a “bed bug explosion” in the world, including an increase in international travel and the pests’ having built a resistance to pesticides, he says.

Bedbugs were a huge problem until 1939, when the pesticide DDT was introduced, Dill said, but it was outlawed in 1972.

“The numbers of bedbugs are really increasing dramatically,” Dill said. “I think it is going to get worse before it gets better because no one has found the silver bullet to manage the pest or monitor the pest.”

Bedbugs are difficult to eradicate; pest management companies typically use heat, steam or chemicals to kill them, Dill says. Treatment is costly and can go from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Even worse, “nothing is 100 percent effective,” he said.

Bad bedbug experience

Neil Fogg lived a nightmare he hopes never recurs.

He and his girlfriend were traveling in Europe recently and boarded an overnight ferry going from Italy to Greece.

They were sitting on airline-style seats, preparing for sleep, when Fogg thought he felt something crawling on him.

“A little while later I felt something again,” said Fogg, 27, of South Thomaston.

He saw a bug on his pant leg. His girlfriend saw one on her pillow.

“They were crawling all over our back packs,” Fogg said. “By the time we noticed them, they had infested the outside of our packs.”

They complained to ferry officials who gave them a room so they could shower, but three days later, their bodies were covered with red and itchy bites marks, he said.

“They take a while to heal up — two to three weeks,” Fogg said.

When they got back to Maine, they dried their clothes on high heat. The bugs died, but emotional baggage remains:

“It was an experience that definitely changed my thoughts on public places,” Fogg said. “It’s kind of in my head now. You think you can be invincible or immune, but everyone is vulnerable.”

Including entomologists.

Rich Hansen, an entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Fort Collins, Colo., fought bedbugs in his home last year after his wife suffered bites, Hansen said this week.

“I didn’t even think of bedbugs. Both of us and our daughters travel and stay in hotels, so that’s our suspicion, that we picked them up, but we don’t know where or when. We took apart the bed and found a few bugs. I brought them in and looked under a microscope and there was no doubt what they were.”

Chemical control of bedbugs

Ted St. Amand treats every space imaginable for bedbugs — homes, apartments, hotels, businesses. He does it in Waterville, Augusta and Skowhegan, among other areas.

“It’s safe to say the bedbug problem is widespread,” says St. Amand, owner of Atlantic Pest Solutions, based in Brunswick.

In business 37 years, St. Amand says bedbug “bombs” you buy in stores are next to useless. He often uses four trained dogs to sniff out bedbugs and their eggs. Depending on the situation, heat, steam or chemical treatments are used.

“Above 122 degrees is instant death. Let’s say it’s an apartment. We heat the apartment up to 135 degrees and hold it four hours.”

That takes one day, whereas using chemicals requires three visits. The average cost to treat a one or two-bedroom unit with chemicals is $300 to $700; heat treating those spaces costs $900 to $1,400, he said.

Bedbugs keep his company plenty busy.

“We have a whole bedbug division of 20 people. That’s all they do in Maine and New Hampshire.”

A ‘budget buster’ for landlords

St. Amand says landlords and hotel owners spend lots of money on bedbugs.

“This has been a budget buster for them,” he said.

Landlord Donna Hodges agrees.

She and her husband had apartment buildings in the Portland area several years ago and dealt with bedbugs in a nine-unit building. She believes the problem started when a tenant brought a couch in off the street that had a “free” sign on it. She spent $7,500 for treatment and cleaning, she said.

She has not had bedbugs in her 70 units in central Maine, but the issue is hitting landlords’ pockets, she said. She and Chris McMorrow, both members of the Waterville-based Central Maine Apartment Owners Association, say a law passed last year requires landlords to lend money to tenants for new mattresses and to clean their belongings if they have bedbugs and can not afford to do it themselves. That places a financial burden on landlords, she said:

“It’s asking me to be a financial institution — and I’m not a licensed lender.”

She and others are trying to get parts of the law repealed.

McMorrow had a bedbug problem a year ago at one of his Waterville apartments when a tenant took in a man who had been living in a homeless shelter in Lewiston, he said. The guest slept on the couch, which soon became infested with bedbugs; McMorrow spent $2,500 on cleaning and treatment.

He and Hodges see bedbugs as more than just a landlord problem.

“I really think it’s a public health issue that has to be dealt with, with education,” McMorrow said.

Waterville Code Enforcement Officer Garth Collins has received only two reports of bedbug problems in the city in the last two years, and both were resolved, he said.

But prevention is key, according to Betty Palmer, executive director of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville. Bedbugs have not been found in the shelter, but it is checked carefully and regularly.

“You really have to — you can’t take it for granted,” Palmer said. “We’re aware that bedbugs have been a very costly issue for shelters and apartment owners.”

Moore, in Augusta, said tenants tell her they moved into an apartment that already had bedbugs and the landlord didn’t advise them beforehand.

“The landlord tries to say, ‘Well, you brought the bedbugs with you,’ and then people come in and don’t know what their tenant rights are.”

Moore agrees the bedbug problem is a public health issue the government needs to address and publicize.

 

 

Amy Calder — 861-9247

acalder@centralmaine.com

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