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Putting the bite on bedbugs

Hotels, dorms and local groups work hard to keep little suckers at bay
by: Christopher Onstott Grant Walter of Home Forward Pest Control inspects for bedbugs in the couch cushions of an apartment with an LED light during a routine inspection.

'Goodnight. Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite.' The old bedtime saying has taken on new meaning for thousands of Portlanders in recent years, ever since the local bedbug population mushroomed.

Infestations at homeless shelters, hotels, apartments, hospitals and college dorms have served as a wake-up call, prompting a variety of countermeasures.

But bedbugs remain a stigma here, in contrast to places like New York where they've long been ensconced. That keeps people and businesses from reporting or acknowledging the problem - making it difficult to track the growth of Portland's bedbug population and determine if and where we're making headway.

'Nobody can give you a really clear picture, because we don't have that data,' says Margaret Mahoney, co-chairwoman of a bedbug work group formed by Multnomah County to forge community-wide solutions.

Homeless shelters and other low-income housing providers stepped up first in Portland, when bedbug sightings grew more common during the past few years. Home Forward (formerly the Housing Authority of Portland) built a 'warming room' to kill bedbugs in homeless peoples' luggage and possession before they could move into the new Bud Clark Commons apartments in Old Town. Central City Concern even developed its own bedbug-resistant bed and made it available to others.

But experts say anti-bedbug efforts in other sectors have lagged or been less effective, including those of the hotel industry and purveyors of secondhand furniture. Portlanders working on the front lines say it would be better if all affected parties, including TriMet, movie theaters and the hotel industry, participated in community-wide efforts.

'For a long time, the hotels said, 'We don't have a problem,' 'says Mark Schmidt, Portland branch manager for Sprague Pest Solutions Inc.

'I don't understand why we're having such roadblocks with some partners in the community,' says Corey Ray, housing director for Portland State University.

Even the Multnomah County Health Department was initially reluctant to address the issue, says County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, because bedbugs were not deemed a public health threat.

Kafoury helped organize a one-day Bedbug Summit last March, bringing together a variety of affected players. The county is taking the lead role, though it's not always getting the information or cooperation it would like.

'We know the importance in tracking the problem and knowing what the growth rate is,' says Ben Duncan, bedbugs program specialist for Multnomah County Health Department's environmental health section.However, Duncan says, 'There's very little regulation or mandatory reporting.'

Despite the lack of comprehensive data on the scope of Portland's bedbug problem, there are some indications of a problem here:

• In 2011, bedbugs were detected in 180 low-income housing units operated by Home Forward, says Ken Combs, core maintenance manager for the nonprofit agency. That's 15 percent of its high-rise apartments.

• Schmidt, whose pest-control company counts many hotel owners among its clients, estimates that 3 percent of Portland hotel rooms have bedbugs. 'I haven't seen the numbers change much,' Schmidt says.

• Portland State University gets two to three reports of bedbugs in its dorms each quarter, says John Eckman, executive director of PSU auxiliary services. Every Northwest university, except for Eastern Oregon University, has reported problems with bedbugs, Eckman says.

• Though the city of Portland plays a minor role in the bedbug issue, 86 tenants have complained to the city Bureau of Development Services about bedbug infestations in their residences during the past four years, says agency spokesman Ross Caron.

Real bloodsuckers

Bedbugs are tiny, reddish-brown insects that feed on the blood of people and animals while they're sleeping. They initially inject victims with an anesthetic, so people don't realize they've been bitten until later - sometimes days later - when bite marks appear.

Bedbugs congregate where their victims sleep, and they come out at night. They hide in mattress seams, box springs, behind wallpaper, in light switches and floorboards, even inside alarm clocks and portable bedside stereos. They spread by hitchhiking rides on bedding, clothing, luggage and furniture.

Though bedbugs don't carry disease, they can cause considerable stress and sleeplessness, and are very difficult to eliminate.Kafoury says the local bedbug problem first came to her attention when many senior citizens and disabled people reported being traumatized by them.

'You have folks that really get debilitated by this issue,' Duncan says.

Some tenants have been billed hundreds of dollars when bedbugs were spotted in their dwellings, and others have been evicted, Duncan says. That makes some people afraid to report bedbugs, making them harder to contain.

County officials fear people are misusing pesticides in an effort to kill bedbugs, rather than hiring professionals. In addition, Kafoury says, 'There are pest control companies out there that don't know what they're doing either.'

The bedbug population in the United States fell dramatically by the mid-20thcentury, beaten back by pesticides. But the numbers started growing as the insects developed resistance to pesticides, and with increased international travel. Long a scourge in New York City, elsewhere on the East Coast and in the Midwest, the bedbug population started growing here about three to five years ago.

Though they're more common among transients, who often live in unsanitary conditions, bedbugs have been found in million-dollar Pearl District condos and high-end downtown hotels. They also may be found in homes, apartments, hotels, buses, airplanes and movie theaters.

'It doesn't matter if you're a rich or poor person,' says Kasandra Walton, a pest control technician for Home Forward. 'They don't discriminate. They like everybody.'

Aggressive programs

One day last week, a crew from Home Forward sprayed Robert Jarkow's apartment at the Hollywood East high-rise in Northeast Portland. It was a precautionary move, which Jarkow appreciated, because several of his neighbors have reported bedbugs. 'They have not been very happy,' he says.

Home Forward has an aggressive strategy to keep bedbugs under control, and now handles it all in-house with three trained pest control technicians.

'The numbers that we started at, and where we're at now, we're totally on top of it,' Combs says.

Staff concluded that some bedbugs were brought into the apartments via furniture donated by the Community Warehouse, and on a futon purchased on Craigslist. 'We put a halt to anything coming in before we checked it,' Combs says. They eliminated free clothing exchanges on site, and started providing free encasements for mattresses, which suffocate bedbugs.

When bedbugs are discovered, technicians treat the units three times, every two to three weeks. If bedbugs are still there on a fourth visit, the treatment cycle begins anew, Walton says. Follow-up inspections are held every two months.

Home Forward invested $33,000 to build what is believed to be the first heating room for bedbugs in Oregon, after hearing about similar facilities in Canada. 'It's basically a big sauna,' says Rachael Duke of Home Forward.

Incoming residents to Bud Clark Commons are asked to place their belongings in the room, which is heated to 194 degrees. That kills the bedbugs and their eggs in a couple hours, without the need for chemicals. As a result, there've been no bedbugs reported at the homeless apartments since they opened six months ago, Duke says.

Used furnishings a concern

Bedbug experts say mattresses left on the street for all-comers to take, or other free exchanges, are a particular hazard for spreading bedbugs. It's believed that some people put bedbug-infested furniture on the street to avoid the expense of hauling it to a dump.

Organizations like Community Warehouse, a Northeast Portland furniture bank that provides donated goods to low-income people, have a particular challenge with bedbugs. They get several truckloads of donated furnishings a day, and make it available to about 50 low-income families a week, says Tom Elston, program manager.

Elston acknowledges that his organization gets one to two calls a month from people claiming bedbugs have been spotted in the donated bedding and other furnishings. 'There's been some buildings that won't allow furniture in from Community Warehouse,' he adds.

But Elston, who is an active participant on the county bedbug work group, insists bedbugs are under control at Community Warehouse because of its extensive screening program. Every week a dog trained to sniff out bedbugs comes to the warehouse to 'inspect' the entire facility, including newly donated items.

'We've passed 62 inspections in a row,' Elston says. 'We don't have a problem at all -zero.'

However, Elston is convinced that many hotels are doing less than they should to counter bedbugs. When there are guests staying there, it's unlikely a hotel will close a whole wing to deal with an infestation, he says.

Hotels are particularly vulnerable because they are way stations for travelers, including those coming from overseas, where bedbugs are more common.

But hotel managers are very tightlipped about bedbugs, for fear of spooking would-be guests, says Schmidt of Sprague Pest Solutions. 'There's nobody that I know that's willing to talk about having issues,' he says. 'There was a lot of 'this doesn't happen in my place' attitude for a long time.'

But then Portland's hotel industry was tarnished by an August 2010 report on CBS News, when a piece ran about a CBS video producer who reported getting bedbugs from an unnamed Portland hotel.

That caused more Portland hotel companies to hire companies to inspect guest rooms and aggressively treat them for bedbugs, Schmidt says. But that's not cheap: it can cost $375 and up, even more than $1,000, to treat a single hotel room thoroughly, Schmidt says.

Many hotel companies are very aggressive, but some not as much, he says, adding that 'in general, the hotel market still has a few more steps to go.'

The stigma still attached to bedbugs, and the lack of a reliable way to report and document bedbug sightings, poses a huge financial risk for hotels, because some citizens have taken to starting websites where they list bedbug sightings.

One of those websites, called Bedbugreports.com, alleges bedbugs were found at four Portland hotels, including one of the city's fanciest. But there's no way to substantiate the accuracy of those reports, and some fear that a rival hotel company might be tempted to spread false reports about their competitors. 'How would you know it's now Hotel A dissing Hotel B?' Kafoury says.

Experts advise travelers to put their luggage in the bathtub in their hotel rooms, or those metal folding racks. Travelers who are concerned might want to talk to the hotels about their approaches to prevent bedbugs, Duncan says.

Dorm crashers

Colleges also risk negative ramifications for their public image, if not their enrollment, from bedbug outbreaks.

Portland State University has opted to be up front about its bedbug problems.

'We advertise about it all through the halls, so people know what to look for,' Eckman says.

'I think you need to be open about it. If not, that's when you get into trouble,' Ray says.

So far, there have been bedbugs found in three of PSU's 10 residential buildings, Ray says. PSU sent maintenance staff to get training on bedbugs, and it inspects all its dorms twice a year, during student breaks. Rooms are treated when bedbugs are spotted, as well as after the students leave those dorms.

PSU found that one of the causes of its bedbug problem was students bringing in old furniture. When the university moved to restrict such furnishings in the dorms, the number of bedbug sightings dropped. PSU also decided to provide more furnishings in its dorms, so students wouldn't have to bring in used goods.

Kafoury says there's a need to establish a central repository in Multnomah County to log complaints about bedbugs and get a better sense of progress being made.

Until then, the best way to conquer bedbugs or get them under control is through public education, Kafoury says.

But as long as the stigma remains, Portlanders will continue to sweep the problem under the bed. And that's exactly where bedbugs love to hide.


Bedbug remedies come in hot, cold or cedar oil

April can sniff out bedbugs in a hotel room in two to five minutes.

The same room would take Mark Schmidt at least a half hour.

April is one of three bedbug-sniffing dogs employed by Sprague Pest Solutions Inc. in Portland, which Schmidt runs as branch manager.

April is much faster and has an accuracy rate of 93 percent to 95 percent, Schmidt says. Using dogs to ferret out bedbugs also alleviates the need to tear apart a room to find the offending bloodsuckers.

Portland State University is considering using dogs to sniff out bedbugs, though officials are a bit worried that students will think there's a bomb threat in the dorms.

Home Forward, formerly known as the Housing Authority of Portland, finds visual inspections are more reliable than using dogs, says Ken Combs, Home Forward core maintenance manager.

There also are differing views about how to kill bedbugs once they're spotted, and how to keep their eggs from hatching.

'You can freeze 'em, you can bake 'em, you can steam 'em,' Combs says, or you can apply a variety of toxic and nontoxic chemicals.

At Bud Clark Commons, the new Old Town apartments for homeless people, Home Forward built a heating room, kept at 194 degrees, that fries bedbugs hidden in luggage, bedding and possessions.

At its low-income apartments, Home Forward sprays Cedarcide, an organic pesticide made from cedar oil, to kill bedbugs, and Phantom residue to keep the eggs from hatching.

'We swear by it,' Combs says.

Schmidt thinks the cedar oil claims are overblown. 'To me, it's almost snake oil,' he says.

Sprague uses various methods to kill bedbugs, depending on the situation. For hotels, the company finds heat treatment works well, with a follow-up application of residue. A room heated to 120 degrees can kill bedbugs hidden in a mattress, and can be '100 percent effective in a day's time,' Schmidt says. That way, a hotel doesn't lose more than a day's business.

But it's costly. Heat treatment at a home or hotel runs about $1 to $2 for every square foot of space, Schmidt says.


Resources on bedbugs

Multnomah County fact sheets: web.multco.us/health/bed-bugs

Public health impacts, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/Publications/Bed_Bugs_CDC-EPA_Statement.htm

Pesticides to control bedbugs, from Environmental Protection Agency: www.epa.gov/pesticides/bedbugs

Oregon Health Authority fact sheet: www.public.health.oregon.gov/HealthyEnvironments/Recreation/PoolsLodging/Documents/oephfactsheet.pdf

Understanding and controlling bedbugs, from National Pesticide Information Center at Oregon State University: www.npic.orst.edu/pest/bedbug.html

National Geographic video about bedbugs: www.video.nationalgeographic.com/video/animals/bugs-animals/other-bugs/bedbugs

Best management practices for controlling bedbugs, from the National Pest Management Association: www.npmapestworld.org/publicpolicy/documents/NPMABedBugBMPAPPROVED20110124_prettified.pdf