Entering the Park Central Hotel in the midst of Tuesday’s swelter, we couldn’t help being surprised at the signs blaring “Bedbug Control Seminar This Way” posted in the lobby. Wouldn’t all the hotel guests and tourists meandering through be put off?
Guess New York’s bed bug epidemic is so severe, even prominent midtown hotels don’t mind hosting a couple hundred exterminators and property managers to discuss the latest tips and tools for eradicating these disgusting creatures.
The $179-a-head seminar was sponsored by Pest Control Technology magazine, and drew bug specialists from across the country. The gist of the day was, the bed bug problem’s getting worse and we don’t really know how to deal with it.
“We have to be in an absolute bed bug state of mind,” warned Dr. Michael Potter, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky and leading expert in the now global bed bug war, with no apologies to Billy Joel. “This problem is not going to go away. I don’t see how the problem is going to get better. It’s going to get chaotic.”
Potter came equipped with a PowerPoint presentation and tales of bed bugs “oozing their way” through hospitals, nursing homes, movie theaters, drycleaners, Laundromats, schools, and all manner of dwelling spaces.
“Probably every major university in the U.S. has bed bugs in its dormitories,” he said. He flashed a particularly disheartening slide of an infested mattress in the “heart transplant wing of a major urban hospital.”
He also played a revolting video clip of an albino “nymph,” or juvenile bed bug, extracting its first “blood meal” like a junky sucking up blood into a dirty syringe. “Notice the pumping action,” he added, with the kind of lurid glee only an entomologist could muster.
The exterminators in the house, many of them beefy guys in golf shirts exposing heavily tattooed forearms, nodded in appreciation.
More horrifying was Potter’s assertion that these tiny vampires are growing increasingly resistant to the arsenal of mostly pyrethroid-based compounds currently approved by the EPA. “We’ve had cases where we’re spraying 200 to 300 times the label dose of toxins and we can’t kill ‘em,” Potter said.
Not that folks have given up trying. In fact bedbug-debugging has become a booming business, with one- or two-man exterminator outfits blossoming into multi-million-dollar operations.
People are finding all sorts of ways to make a living off these intractable creatures—from a guy who trains beagles to sniff out bed bugs in hotels and theaters, to companies that will pump your house full of heat to bake the critters to death, or blast your mattress with frozen “carbon dioxide snow” to freeze them out.
New Yorkers seeking low-tech solutions should try hot dryers for anything that can be tumbled—or tying up books and belongings in sealed plastic and baking them on a hot roof for several hours. “Even temperatures as low as 96 to 100 degrees can kill if they are confined to a closed area,” Potter said.
But the surge in business has come with added costs. The other hot topic of the day was how to contend with the flurry of lawsuits from bitten-up hotel guests and apartment renters—like Saturday Night Live star Maya Rudolph, who sued when she found her $13,500-a-month Soho loft was infested.
One property owner wanted to know whether tenants could be sued for bringing the evil critters into a building—a notion that, given the rates of infestation in parts of NYC—struck us a little like suing for getting the flu.
“You’d have to be pretty confident that tenant was the cause,” responded Denise McCurry, an attorney for MGM Mirage resorts and casinos in Las Vegas, who was flown in to address the mounting liability issues faced by property owners and their exterminators. “And remember,” McCurry added, “the tenant is not likely to have a lot of money.”
For now it seems the smart money is in mattress covers, which offer a pro-active way for New Yorkers to safeguard their beds, and maybe even their sanity.
Companies like Protect-A-Bed are making specially designed bed-bug-proof covers with extra-tight zippers so the bugs can’t worm their way in—or out. Better still, they’re made of stretchy polyurethane with a soft cotton surface instead that crinkly vinyl—so you don’t’ have to feel like you’re four years old and wetting the bed again. (At $89.99 for a queen size, they’re not cheap.)
Another winning idea: setting up a hotline that New Yorkers can call to pick up their infested mattresses, instead of allowing them to fester on the street.
Mind you, some of the old-school folks on our East Village block think we’re crazy for throwing crazy money at these bugs. They say we should just drown ‘em in Lysol and Raid and learn to live with it.
We heard a similar kind of fatalism from Anil Rao, owner of one of the largest exterminating companies in India, where urbanization has caused a dramatic spike in bedbug complaints in the last 5 years.
“Yes, we have always sprayed,” Rao told us. “But the bed bug has always been with us.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 8, 2007