CHICAGO — The pest control company Orkin sent Chicagoans into an itchy panic Tuesday after awarding the city its worst ranking: most treatments for bedbug infestation. While being No. 1 is not the best news for Chicago, experts say it’s rash to correlate the number of treatments with the number of infestations in the city.
“Chicago may be the No. 1 for Orkin … but to say that bedbugs are the worst in Chicago is an overstatement,” said research entomologist for BedBug Central Jeff White.
The New Jersey-based company works as an information resource and website for bedbugs and bug-related issues, such as prevention and effective treatment methods.
White said bedbugs have always been around, but recently there has been a shortage of new pesticides introduced into the market. This has allowed them to spread quickly and easily following a surge on the East Coast in 2006.
“The introduction of DDT during WWII pretty much eliminated them,” he said.
“But all pests, not just bedbugs, can and will build up a resistance to pesticides being used against them.”
DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Resistance in this case, does not mean the chemical will fail to kill the bugs and their eggs. It means that to be effective, more of the chemical must be used and the bugs need to be exposed longer for the treatment to work, White said.
After eight years as an entomologist for the Illinois Department of Public Health, Curt Colwell is no stranger to Chicago’s bedbug issues. He has taken calls from all over the state regarding bedbug infestation, with a majority coming from the Chicago area. He started to notice a higher number of bedbug reports in 2007 and the number has steadily increased since then.
According to the City of Chicago Building Department, in 2011 1,365 calls were made to 311 reporting a bedbug infestation and in 2012 the number jumped to 1,533.
“It exploded around 2010,” Cowell said. “I’d say approximately 30 percent of my pest-related calls are about bedbugs each day.”
Collwell said bedbugs are particularly hard to get rid of because removing them requires locating them, and most people don’t want to stay in an infested house to hunt them down. Collwell said there’s no way to know for sure if Chicago is now the worst city in the country.“I don’t know if Chicago has any more bedbugs than Cincinnati does,” he said, referring to that city’s Orkin rank as No. 1 in 2011. “But I don’t think anyone really has those kinds of numbers to determine exactly how bad it is.”
Bedbugs are not capable of transmitting diseases. Some people experience itchy red marks after being bitten, while others don’t notice any bites at all. Both Collwell and White said the biggest problem for those with bedbugs is not removing them or being bitten— it’s the toll they take on people’s lives during and after removal.
“I would say for the average person the emotional and psychological toll is way greater than the physical one,” Colwell said.
Chicago resident Tim Gagarin knows first-hand how bad the bedbugs can be. He started to notice them in his apartment at the end of December. After several treatments Gagarin said he thought they were gone but found more on Jan. 2. He said his life was already stressful as a DePaul University student working part-time, and the bedbugs added even more.
“It’s felt like the home I’ve built for myself here in Chicago has been thrown away,” he said. “Precautionary and necessary measures left me with pretty much the clothing on my back and a few important pieces of sentiment.”
After getting rid of his furniture, sealing up all unneeded clothing, and spending approximately $600 on cleaning and pesticides, Gagarin hasn’t seen any more bugs. He said even though they’re gone, he still has trouble sleeping and looks for them all the time.
“I sit for hours at the edge of my bed before I work up the courage to get in,” he said. “I’m looking for bugs everywhere now. Even in my car and workplace.”
Gagarin said he hasn’t decided whether to move to another apartment when his lease ends in April. The building’s management company has credited some of Gagarin’s losses against his rent and it’s possible the problem could follow him to a new place.
“The best way to get rid of them is to treat them in the environment they came from,” he said. “All things considered I’m lucky my apartment management is willing to help the situation.”
Thankfully there are effective treatment options available. Those with bedbugs can use what White calls a “multidisciplinary approach,” which involves buying “do it yourself” pesticides, bed casings and interception devices that prevent the bugs from spreading. There is also the option of calling in a professional pest control company. These companies will treat the area with pesticides or perform a heating method for removal.
White said he would recommend using heat because he believes it to be the most effective. The treatment involves a professional company heating the infested area to 120 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours.
“Bugs and their eggs will die rapidly under that kind of heat,” he said. “If done right, it can eliminate most, if not all the bugs in just one treatment.”
No matter what option is chosen, White said it is crucial that those with bedbugs do their homework and get reliable information. White also produces BedBug TV, a miniseries online where he goes through the different techniques for removal and answers common bedbug questions.
Even though Chicago would rather be first on another list, White said this may help the public become more aware and educated about bedbugs.
“The lack of public awareness is what increases the spread of bedbugs dramatically,” he said. “Now everyone’s becoming educated, it’s just taking us longer to get there.”
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