New Weapon Aimed at Bed Bugs – Heat holds hope for help amid growing infestations

By Jim Swift – KXAN Austin, TX – July 22, 2010 AUSTIN (KXAN) – In one of the bedrooms of a University of Texas area housing co-op, a technician stares at a computer screen. It’s covered with readouts from sensors placed in other rooms up and down the hall. The sensors monitor the heat in each room, as the thermometer slowly rises on its way to 135 or 140 degrees. Human beings are uncomfortable in that environment.
Bed bugs — and even their eggs — are dead in it

“There needs to be experts involved with this,” said Brian DiCicco, director of Pest Management, Inc. “This is the one insect that you just can’t do by yourself. I mean, you could find home remedies for roaches and ants and you might be able to get it under control. Bed bugs are a unique species and they are very difficult to get rid of.”

DiCicco’s company is a division of Hill Country Pest Control, Inc., a Kerrville, Texas, based company that has been killing bugs since 1971. It took 35 years for the company to begin finding severe infestations of bed bugs.

“Our call volume since 2006 is up 1000 percent,” Dicicco said. “Bed bugs are a terrible situation; there’s no question about it. They affect your mental state; they affect every part of your existence because they’re affecting where you sleep.”

No one knows that better than Lindsey Kimmons, a resident of the Riverlodge Apartment complex in the northwest part of the Austin area. She shows a visitor to her bedroom and starts her tale of woe.

“This is where I first started getting bit, every single night in my bed,” she said. “It’s awful; they bite you and if feels like an awful mosquito bite that does not stop itching. And they last for days, so I would accumulate bites over a week and have them all over me. Miserable, all over my face, my neck, my whole body. They were crawling on top of my sheets, under my sheets, on my mattress; I was changing my sheets every day. I could see them and when the exterminator came, finally, I could see the eggs. So they were laying eggs in my bed.”

Kimmons complained to managers at her complex, but she says they were slow to respond.

“I ended up getting a hotel for two weeks because I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “They said it’s not a health risk; it’s not a health hazard, so live with it, pretty much. They said I was having an allergic reaction that most people don’t have.”

Adam Temple, a spokesperson for the Charlotte, SC, company that owns Riverlodge, would not comment on the record, but the company did say in a written statement: “We were made aware of this isolated incident and took decisive action within 24 hours to address the concerns. We are currently following the recommendations of independent pest control experts in the Austin area in order to completely resolve the issue.”

Kimmons, though, said she knows of several other infested apartments in the complex and argues all the units should be treated since bed bugs migrate from apartment to apartment via wiring and pipes. The debate is not unusual.

“Disputes between tenants and landlords is a big problem,” said DiCicco. “Who’s at fault? You really can’t say. Other states have taken steps to make it clear: It is what it is; you’ve got to take care of it and move on down the road. Under their legislation, the landlord is responsible to take action within a certain amount of days or they are fined every day they do not take care of it. The longer that infestation sits there and no one is dealing with it, the more chances that it’s going to spread out into other neighboring units,” Dicicco said.

Back at the co-op, DiCicco shows off the work of a specially trained dog that can sniff out a bed bug problem and confirm an infestation in its early stages.

“In the beginning, four months of a bed bug infestation , it’s almost impossible with a visual inspection to confirm because the numbers aren’t up yet,” he said.

If the numbers grow out of control, the company brings on the heat.

“Right now, we’re at 125 degrees,” said Pest Management’s Sarah McElwee as two massive heaters with loud fans almost drown out her voice. “Our goal is to get it up to 130 to135 degrees.”

Room by room, the heaters eliminate the critters as Alan Robinson, general administrator ofCollege House Co-ops , which runs the bug-infested Pearl Street Co-op looks on happily.

“We’ve learned, number one, it can happen to anyone, that it’s not about cleanliness,” he said. “It doesn’t say anything about the person and it happens a lot if there are a lot of people coming in and out.”

Robinson acknowledges, though, that the co-op failed to appreciate the seriousness of the problem in the beginning. If it had, it might have avoided the $110,000 expense the bed bug fight is expected to cost.

“Looking back, I wish I could have done a lot more earlier,” he said. “I thought of it as just another pest control issue; you call your regular pest control company; they put down some chemicals and it’s gone. That’s not true and I wish I knew then what I know now. Assume it’s going to happen to you. Assume you’re going to get it, monitor and then immediately respond once you identify a problem.”

Meanwhile, area hotels, nursing homes and even hospitals are on the alert. Pest Management has treated 10 hotels in the Austin area alone over the past two years and one still uses the company’s dogs for regular inspections.

So why, you may ask, is all this happening now? It’s true that bed bugs have always been with us, but treatments with the now-banned DDT significantly reduced their numbers. With that weapon now gone, the bugs are on a comeback.

“Due to international travel,” said DiCicco, “they’ve really hit the eastern seaboard and they’ve slowly been moving inland from New York and San Francisco into the middle of the country and the Austin area. Now there’s a certain amount of resistance to certain products. There’s not a lot of chemicals out there that take care of this particular problem.”

Hence the heat. Bring it on.