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Bed bugs make an unwelcome comeback: ‘An epidemic’ in Long Beach – Long Beach Press Telegram


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Gary Shelton tossed clothes, a wooden bed frame, a directors chair and cardboard boxes stuffed with papers from his community-activist campaigns.

Other clothes the 68-year-old Long Beach man washed, dried and bagged.

Then he waited. And waited. And waited.

An exterminator sprayed his ninth-floor Plymouth West apartment three times for bed bugs: December, January and February.

If there is any evidence of bed bugs they treat again, he said.

Finally, in March, Shelton was given the all clear.

Its like living out of an overnight case for three months, he said of the lengthy process.

Shelton still is pulling clothes out of bags stored on his balcony that he hasnt worn for a while.

Im finding that Im forgetting I had so many socks, he said.

Turns out bed bugs, those not-so-cuddly insects our parents mentioned when they tucked us in at night and that we didnt give a second thought to are very real these days.

And, yes, they bite.

Indeed, experts say the reddish-brown bed bug that is about the size of a grain of rice has made an extraordinary comeback after a roller coaster of a century.

In the early decades of the 1900s, the bug was widespread across the U.S. But the advent of DDT during World War II changed that, killing off huge numbers in the 1940s and 50s.

We thought it was gone forever, said Dini Miller, professor of entomology at Virginia Tech University. When you think about it now, that was kind of stupid.

After lying low for decades, the dreaded insect that was mentioned in medieval European literature is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Since 2000, its numbers have multiplied.

Its just exploded, Miller said.

Today theyre everywhere.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, theyre in apartments, houses, shelters, college dormitories, cruise ships, buses and trains. They typically live within an 8-foot crawl of where people sleep.

And if you thought your car was a refuge from the blood-sucking pests, guess again. Miller said bed bugs are fond of automobiles for good reason.

The food comes and sits down on a regular basis, she said. And everybody gets something to eat.

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The crazy thing is, you dont know when your blood is being slurped through the bed bugs version of a straw an elongated beak for a meal. The CDC says the bug injects an anesthetic and anticoagulant that renders its bite painless.

Itchy, bite marks do appear in a few days. They are similar to marks from a mosquito or flea bite, a slightly swollen and red area, the CDC said.

Scratching sometimes causes infection. But many people have no reaction at all.

In any event, bed bugs arent considered dangerous.

They do not transmit any diseases, said Dong-Hwan Choe, an urban entomologist and assistant professor of entomology at UC Riverside.

Choe is working to develop a device that can detect bed bugs for hotel chains and other businesses.

It has to be simple. It has to be cheap, Choe said. It has to be small so that it can be placed without being noticed by the people staying in the hotel.

Disease bearing or not, the thought of being dined on is enough to make ones skin crawl.

Choe said the bugs feed mostly at nighttime, which creeps people out.

And dont think you can fool them if you work a graveyard shift and sleep during the day.

In a 2015 article titled, Your Guide to Bed Bugs, University of Kentucky entomologist Michael Potter said the pest will adjust its schedule to yours.

Sleeping with the lights on is also not likely to deter hungry bed bugs, Potter wrote.

Potter said a feeding takes three to 10 minutes. Then the bug crawls back into its hiding place to digest the meal. Its flat body enables it to hide in tiny crevices in mattresses, box springs and bed frames.

When it comes to the creep-out factor, there is at least one thing in our favor: unlike other insects, bed bugs cant fly, Choe said.

But theyre speedy. The CDC says the bugs can crawl more than 100 feet in a night.

The nations big bad bed bug blow-up can be traced to a number of factors, experts say.

For one, DDT is long gone. The EPA banned it in 1972.

Even so, the bugs were building up resistance to DDT, Miller said. And, gradually, they are building up a defense against insecticides being used today.

She said some have developed thick, protective skins.

Others produce enzymes that break down toxic ingredients and render insecticides harmless.

We like to call those the hard drinking bugs, she said.

Still other bed bugs have mutated.

They meet, fall in love and make other genetically immune babies, Miller said.

Perhaps we have ourselves to blame, too.

With the bugs out of sight and out of mind for decades, we have been slow to rally against them.

Plus, we travel a lot these days to faraway places, experts say. And the bugs are good at hitchhiking a ride home on our luggage.

However they got here, the guy who manages the 11-story tower where Shelton lives said the Plymouth West infestation began around 2010. LOMCO President Kent Davis said bed bugs appear to be a bigger problem in Long Beach than in other places.

LOMCO owns and manages a dozen properties with a combined 2,000 apartments in Los Angeles and Orange counties. In most of the firms senior communities, Davis said, problems are minimal.

In Long Beach, its an epidemic, he said.

Whether Long Beach is worse than other cities is unclear.

Katie Martel, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said that during the year ending June 30 the county received 1,494 bed-bug complaints.

However, she said, her department doesnt track Long Beach because the city has its own health agency.

Kevin Lee, a Long Beach Development Services spokesman, said the city doesnt break out bed-bug complaints from insect calls.

Choe, the expert from UC Riverside, said he doubts Long Beach is worse than everyone else. But he said densely populated cities such as Long Beach are more prone to infestations than sparsely populated ones.

They tend to have more frequent problems with bed bugs because they have more units and more people living close together, Choe said.

Richard Mitsuda, an Orkin branch manager in Long Beach, termed the pest control operators area calls steady.

While we havent seen a spike in the number of requests for bed bug treatment, we have been responding to reports of bed bugs in senior care facilities, Mitsuda said.

As for the region overall, Los Angeles is the nations sixth worst metro area for bed bugs, according to Atlanta-based Orkin. In the firms 2017 ranking, L.A. followed Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York and Columbus, Ohio.

For the Orkin survey, the L.A. area was defined as Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

Miller noted Terminix puts out an annual ranking, too. In its most recent report, Detroit was No. 1 on the list. L.A. was No. 4.

You have to take all of this with a grain of salt, Miller said. But, its one of the few indicators that we have.

Theres no denying, however, that Sheltons home is in one of the hardest-hit properties.

Davis said 84 of Plymouth Wests 196 units have been treated in the past 12 months.

Some units, like Sheltons, have been treated repeatedly.

That may seem over the top. But its in line with the industry experience.

According to a national survey, two to three treatments is typical when insecticide is sprayed.

Survey results were detailed in Bed Bugs Across America, a 2015 report by University of Kentucky entomology professors Potter and Kenneth Haynes, and Jim Fredericks, vice president of technical services for the National Pest Management Association.

More expensive heat treatments are more likely to knock out an infestation in one visit, the report stated.

Because heat treatment can take most of the day, said Glen Ramsey, Orkin technical services manager, conventional treatment is more common.

Heat treatment takes longer than conventional treatment, as the affected areas need to be warmed up to 125 degrees, held for one hour and then cooled back down, Ramsey said.

The report said treatment costs averaged $1,225 for single-family homes and $3,128 for multifamily buildings in 2015, though some apartment managers spent as much as $50,000.

That places Plymouth West at the high end of the range. Davis said LOMCO spent $400,000 for treatments there from 2013 to 2016.

Before an exterminator ever steps foot in the door, extensive preparations are made.

Residents strip beds of sheets and blankets, empty dressers and closets, and wash and bag clothes.

The key is to put them through the dryer for an hour at high temperature, Shelton said.

Shelton then had to leave his apartment for several hours. He returned the same day. Other renters spent a night in a motel.

Underscoring the difficulty involved in eradicating bed bugs, Sheltons unit was sprayed three times. Even then exterminators didnt get everything.

They said they couldnt get the bed bugs out of the bed frame, Shelton said.

So he threw it out and bought a new one.

Life is getting back to normal now. Its been anything but since that fateful day in late November.

A friend was over and noticed a live bug in the middle of the bed spread, Shelton said.

He was stunned. I wasnt getting bites that I was aware of, he said. But he promptly called the apartment manager.

After seeing one, he started seeing a lot more bugs.

Once you see them, youll see them in your mind, Shelton said. Youll see them everywhere.

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Size: 1mm to 7mm, roughly the size of Lincolns head on a penny

Color: Reddish brown, similar in coloration to apple seed

Food: Human blood

Home: Within 8 feet of sleeping quarters. Known to live in apartments, houses, hotels, shelters, cruise ships, buses, trains, dormitories

Travel: Cant fly or jump, but can crawl fast up to 100 feet per day

Bite: Similar to mosquito, flea bites; does not carry disease

Evidence of presence: Bed bugs in folds of mattresses and sheets, rusty-colored blood spots; a sweet, musty odor

Treatment: insecticide, heat; significant preparation required of home occupants in advance; professional treatment recommended

No-nos: Do not spray bed sheets, blankets or clothes; do not apply bleach or alcohol. Applications of rubbing alcohol have sparked fires.

Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Your Guide to Bed Bugs, by Michael Potter; news reports

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Bed bugs make an unwelcome comeback: ‘An epidemic’ in Long Beach – Long Beach Press Telegram

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