No easy battle against bedbugs

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 1, 2010 - 9:54 PM

There's no silver bullet that will rid a home of the repugnant pests for good, housing officials say, but heat treatment is effective in controlling infestations.

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James Henry of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority points out a dead bedbug on his thumb. “This is the latest and greatest,” he said of high-heat method to kill the creatures. “We’re on the cutting edge.”

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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The air is frigid as James Henry and his crew haul industrial-sized equipment into a high-rise in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

Their blood-sucking adversary is resilient, and the battle with Cimex lectularius, also known as the bedbug, will be heated.

"Hang tight, it's gonna feel like Hawaii in there," says Henry, assistant director of maintenance operations for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA), as they lug four giant heaters into a one-bedroom apartment.

The crew sets up some sensors, and Henry flips a switch. Within minutes the place heats up to near 100 degrees. At 120 degrees the bugs begin to die. Henry maintains that temperature for six to seven hours in a regular bedbug bake-off.

It's a task he performs in at least four apartments a week these days, and he's just one of a growing number of bedbug bakers across the Twin Cities and the nation.

No bigger than a pencil eraser, the little bedbug has resurged from its virtual eradication in the United States, jumped out of the nursery rhyme and wreaked havoc from public housing complexes to five-star hotels.

"It absolutely has gotten worse, and this is a problem that's here to stay," said Jeff White, research entomologist for New Jersey-based Bedbug Central, a website that purports to be an authoritative source for bedbug information.

He said people who think their house is too big or clean or expensive to host bedbugs could get a rude awakening.

"A lot of people like to talk about how apartment buildings and universities have a problem," White said. "We need to prepare everyone for them and have policies in place that when an infestation happens, it can be dealt with in a time-effective manner."

A common problem in the United States until the 1950s, bedbugs were then nearly eradicated here by strong pesticides such as DDT. But that powerful pesticide was banned in 1972, international travel increased and bedbugs gained a new foothold.

They reemerged in force on the East Coast around 1999, White says, and showed up in Minneapolis three to five years ago, depending on whom you ask.

"I don't know where they came from," said Mary Alice Smalls, principal asset operations manager for Cedars Asset Management Project, part of the MPHA. "I grew up with the nursery rhyme and never saw one until a few years ago."

Henry does his heat treatments with a $61,000 Thermal Remediation machine that his agency bought from Burnsville-based Temp-Air. A second machine is expected to arrive this week. The heat treatment is followed by a chemical treatment. Public housing agencies follow a similar regimen in New York, Milwaukee and Seattle, Henry said.

Greg Grabow, national sales manager for Thermal Remediation, said the equipment has been manufactured for about two years. In the Twin Cities, 18 systems are being used by pest control companies, property management groups, universities, hotels and motels.

The company has distributed 89 systems nationwide. It shipped 10 in December and has 14 scheduled for shipment this month.

Grabow said that because the nocturnal, blood-eating bedbugs don't carry disease, they are considered a nuisance rather than a danger. He added that health departments don't consider infestations a health emergency.

As a result, he said, "the whole [pest control] industry has been caught flat-footed."

"People had been in the pest control business for 30 or 40 years and had never seen a bedbug. Now they're everywhere," Grabow said. "There's never been a bug so difficult to get rid of or spreading this level of havoc that someone like the Minneapolis Housing Authority is purchasing these machines. And there's no hope of completely clearing them out because new people are coming in [to apartments] all the time."

Housing officials admit heat treatment is no silver bullet, but it is effective. And they're fighting the problem through education, trying to persuade families to report infestations right away, and assuring them they won't be forced to give up their bedding or furniture.

"In the past, if there was any sign of infestation, we were asking low-income people to get rid of" infested furniture and not accept cheap or free furniture that might be infested, said Mary Boler, MPHA managing director of low-income public housing.

"It's created a hardship all around," she said. "We feel by getting this heat treatment, we would be able to salvage this furniture, and in a lot of cases we find people are not coming forward quickly enough, and we hope that this can change."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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