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Don't Let The Bed Bugs Bite

Don't Let The Bed Bugs Bite
Are you concerned that you might have bedbugs? We'll find out about the signs to look for and how to get rid of them.

Bed Bug Registry

The Bed Bug Registry is a free, public database of user-submitted bed bug reports from across the United States and Canada. Founded in 2006, the site has collected about 20,000 reports covering 12,000 locations.

We'll discuss why there's been a plague of bedbugs across the U.S. Some San Diego neighborhoods, hotels and fire stations are fighting the persistant pests. Why is San Diego playing reluctant host to this outdated bug and what can we do about it?



Chris Conlan, supervising vector ecologist, Dept. of Environmental Health, Vector Control Program for San Diego County.

Rob Cartwright, owner of Cartwright Termite & Pest Control.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. And you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When you tell your kid goodnight, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite, you used to be joking about the bed bugs, but now San Diego has joined a number of cities across the nation, most notably New York City with an increasingly bed bug infestation problem, earlier San Diego firemen had to wash their gear and get specially treated for a bed bug infestation, the number of calls about bed bugs has increased from a call or two a year, to about ten calls a day. So why is San Diego playing reluctant host to this outdated bug, and what can we do any it? I'd like to welcome my guests, Chris Conlan is supervising vector ecologist, the San Diego County department of environmental health vector control program, and Chris welcome back to the show.

CHRIS CONLAN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Rob Cartwright is owner of Cartwright termite and pest control, rob, thanks for coming in.


ROB CARTWRIGHT: Good morning. Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And we'd like to invite listeners to calm in, do you have concerns? Give us a call with your questions and comments, the number is 1 888 895 5727. Chris, let's start from the very beginning. What are bed bugs?

CHRIS CONLAN: Well, these are small biting insects, they're probably about the size of maybe an ready bug or apple seed. They are night time biters so they tend to hide during the day, maybe in the box springs or even in items around the bed like picture frames and things like that. Then at night, after it's good and dark, they come out looking for a host, and they will take blood meals.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are there certain conditions that are particularly attractive to bed bugs? I mean, sometimes we think of bugs hitting places that robot kept too clean or anything like that. Is that something that bed bugs are attracted to? Dirt or is it just anything.

CHRIS CONLAN: Bed bugs don't recognize class. They don't care whether you're in a five star hotel or you're living homeless on the street. If you're living in a situation where you're there most of the time at night sleeping, they could set up shop. Now, if you live in a situation where you have more clutter, more things around your bedroom that they can hide it, you are providing them with more places for them to hide, and you could end up request a big bigger infestation that way before you notice.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what kind of an infestation are they? Are they like any other kind of bug that we would recognize.

CHRIS CONLAN: You know, they're in a class of bugs that are known as true bugs, they're actually one of the few bugs that actually go by the common name bug. They're related to other things like assassin bugs and other things like harlequin bugs, not something that people would recognize as being a biting insector anything to worry about. But these guys unfortunately, they are one that do bite.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how do they bite?

CHRIS CONLAN: They have a small syringe like mouth part, and they insert that with a type of saliva that's an an synthetic, so you don't feel it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are talking about bed bugs and taking your calls at 1 888 895 5727. My guests are Chris Conlan, he's rob cartwright is here. Chris, it seems to me in reading about this this bed bugs used to be common in America before World War II. Of that's where the saying comes from. And then they were almost eradicated and they resurged, like, in the 1990s. Why is that?

CHRIS CONLAN: There's a fair number of theories around. Probably one of the most common theories out there is that back in the day when pesticides were still new and novel and there were a lot of ones out there that had a really good broad spectrum of activity, when people would treat for something, it department matter what they treated for, that same pesticide would kill almost everything it came into contact with. But as time has Marched on, many of those pesticides have been proven to be harmful to the environment, taken off the market. For instance, if you're complaining about a flee problem, they're gonna go in and treat for fleas, and the products they're using may not have that broad spectrum of activity that clean up some of the other pests that may be in the house that you're not aware of.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Taking your calls at 1 888 895 5727. I want to get rob Cartwright, who is owner of Cartwright term night and post control. Rob, you're in the trenches and you're fight this pest. How long do you think people might actually have bed bugs before they become aware television?

ROB CARTWRIGHT: What I'm noticing with a lot of places that we're being called about, the first complaint of the problem is they're being bit or going out doing inspections. What we're not finding them is in the mattresses. Immediately what I'm finding them in is baseboards and hiding in the outlet covers. And the reason is your first indication you may have bed bugs is if you wake up in the morning and you may have a pattern of a horizontal to a limb 3 or 4 bites in a row on your body, and you start looking around for bed bugs in the mattress, and what we're find be is the bed bug can travel up to a hundred feet in the evening, and they hit off the carbon monoxide coming off your breath, then they pick up on the hottest part of your body ask start to feed, and on their way back, they'll drop their fecal matter and use it as kind of like a pred trail to their hiding place, and play their larva, and that's where you start seeing the insects in the mattress, in the bed springs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see, so you've had them for I while before you start seeing them in the mattress. Right. Most adults can lay 2 or 3 eggs a day, and a life cycle is normally 50 to 60 days so they can lay about a hundred and 20 to -- within a life cycle, so in 60 days, you could have upwards ever 200 bed bugs undetected.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what kinds of infestations are you see something what does it look like?

ROB CARTWRIGHT: I've seen infestations where people are just getting the bites so then to go in this and combat it with looking at the bites, maybe seeing if a few of the fecal matter going in and taking outlet covers off, treating the baseboards, the mattresses and box springs encapsulating them with mattress covers, taking apart pictures, dressers. Basically treating any place they can possibly hide, in lieu of tries not to have to fume gate, that gets expensive, but the fumigation part of it, you're not done with it, because the fumigation leaves no residual whatsoever, so you may kill the target pest in the house

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. And Debra is on the line in San Diego. Good morning Debra, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Morning. Hi, well, I had bed bugs about five years ago, and it was a nightmare. I had brought a plant into my bedroom, and I saw these little brown bugs on my comforter during the day and I thought oh, it must be coming from the new plant so I moved the plant out and the bugs didn't go away. Then I saw little bloodspots, which is what you're calling the fecal matter, and finally I took one of them in a bag to a friend of mine who own aid pest control company. And he said yeah, that's bed bugs. I never saw a bite, I never felt a bite, I only saw the bugs and the blood on the sheets and by the time they came to treat, they were everywhere. Every mattress. And I tried to do it on my own with some stuff on the Internet, and of course you guys know that that constant work. But it cost about $2,000.


NEW SPEAKER: And it took about three weeks to get them out. So I'm scared to death. I go into a hotel and I immediately, you know, hook under the mattresses, behind the picture frames if you can move them and all that stuff. And so I guess you're probably gonna tell us how to avoid them if possible, but also how much does it cost now to get rid of them?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let me take that last question first, rob, and ask you, how much does it cost T them rid of them?

ROB CARTWRIGHT: Depending on the size of the infestation, you could run up to about $400 a room. And it just depends, we go out, we have to assess the entire house to make sure how bad the problem is. You could have infestations such a large population that what we call a general pest spray wouldn't do you any good. So you would go maybe to a structural fumigation and back it up with residual sprays.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. And Chris, how is it that these bugs do spread? How do they travel.

CHRIS CONLAN: The most common ways, there's two ways that are the most common, one is through travel, people go on vacation, pick them up in the hotels, the other way is through used items like furniture and clothing, there may be a good reason why somebody is selling that mattress real cheap out on their front lawn. You need to be real careful these days when you buy stuff out there. Now all of a sudden we've got bed bugs, well, there's a reason that mattress was in the dumpster. Of so you need to be careful these days. However I've heard that in your own you don't just find bed bugs in your own house, you can actually find them where people congregate; is that right, like movie theatres.

CHRIS CONLAN: Yeah, that is true. You can find them there, but the problem seems to be more in actual places where people tend to live.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now hob pets? Do pets also get bitten by bed bugs.

CHRIS CONLAN: They do, they're not always the preferred target, but yes, they will get bitten, like dogs and cats, yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call, we are taking your calls at 1 888 895 5727. Danny is calling from Encinitas. Good morning, deny. Welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, and thank you so much for taking my call, I so much enjoy your program so thank you so much. My question is, and I've been displaced, myself, and my son, and have been living for almost a year in a lovely hotel here in Encinitas. While I have housekeeping and I don't wish to identify the hotel, but let's just say I have an ocean view, I'm noticing patterns of what I thought you were mosquito bites, and the sheets are changed every day.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. You're going in and out, deny is seeing things that hook that she thinks may be moskeet bites but they're in a pattern. What does that tell you, rob?

ROB CARTWRIGHT: Without looking at the bites themselves, it's really hard to determine. An inspection of the room, because she may be being bit because they're frequently changing the mattresses, or the sheets off the mattresses, you may not have the actual insects in the bed. They may be in the dresser, they may be in the I mean they can hide anywhere so they can travel and be biting them, they can be in the baseboards. But she may want to recommend to the people where she's staying, come out in the look at the room and see if there's something actually biting her.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What role does the county play?

ROB CARTWRIGHT: No, at this point, we have to play an educational role. Of we can also help provide, if they're not sure, if they find a bug and they're not sure what it is, we're happy to take a look at it. Of and we have a professional entomologist, three on staff, who can help them determine exactly what they have. That's one of the things that's key, if you do start to notice bites, it's really hard to tell you what bit you just by looking at the bite. A doctor can't go, that was a bed bug or that was a mosquito. We get bitten, we scratch, everybody's different of so it's a good idea to try to catch the creature, get it identified so you know what you're dealing with.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do we know which neighborhoods in San Diego are being hardest hit?

CHRIS CONLAN: I get calls from all over. I couldn't really target one.


ROB CARTWRIGHT: I've been all over the county and even out of the county so it's


ROB CARTWRIGHT: It's not picking odd people, you know, based on high end, low end, it's hitting everybody.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1 888 895 5727. Anthony is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Anthony, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thank you for taking my calls, I'll take the answer off the air.


NEW SPEAKER: I wanted to know if the responsibility for eradication is with the landlord or the tenant. And I'll take it off the air.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Good question. Do you know, Chris?

CHRIS CONLAN: It's usually on the landlord. But again, it's getting real tough these days. Landlords do know that it's expensive to get the treatment deputy. And if the tenants don't follow the instructions explicitly as rob mentioned before, you run the risk of reinfestation, and that's one of the big problems we're having now around the county with communal living situations like hotels, apartments things like that. Is the bed bugs are very good at spreading through the walls through adjacent units, so the problem is not addressed quickly. You can have a situation go from the room to the whole complex if not careful. So again, really, the landlord should be the one to step up to the plate, but it's not always an easy task to get him to do that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Rob, does it make sense for an individual unit to get an extermination if indeed it's part of a larger complex?

ROB CARTWRIGHT: What I've been recommending to homeowners associations and property owners, the best method of going about it is going out and assessing units above and below and side to side to make sure they're not be bit or there's no infestation. But I like to assess the entire building, and that's the pest way, because but bed bugs will go through walls, you have people throwing stuff out in the trash, people pick it out, and the best thing is educating the homeowners as well as the landlords, that we're living with this insect now and this is what we're gonna have to do to cam bat it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Amy is calling from Escondido, good morning, Amy and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I was wondering, my husband traveling frequently for working like, all over the country, and he's sort of paranoid about bed bugs in general. And he puts his suitcase on the suitcase wrack and doesn't put clothes on the floor, but how can we make sure is there anything else he can do to be sure he doesn't bring anybody home with him?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Chris, what can he do?

CHRIS CONLAN: Well, he sounds like he's already taking a lot of the right steps. You want to keep your suitcase away from the bed. Even though the bugs can be found all around the room, the closer to the bed. Pull the clothing out of the suitcase, chuck it immediately into the washer, dryer, most bed bugs aren't gonna survive a trip to the warner and dryer, and you can keep the suitcase in quarantine out in the garage, wrap it up in tight plastic, that way you're not releasing eggs into the house.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are there any health risks posed by bed bugs?

CHRIS CONLAN: They are not known to transmit any diseases, but in some cases, you can have people that develop real bad reactions to the bites. And another reason these don't go detected very often and many people don't react to the bites. You can be getting bitten many times during the night and not even know it. And it may take a Hong time for your body to develop a reaction, if it develops at all, and by that time, you may have a really big problem developing in your room.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So in other words, if you don't have an allergic reaction to these bites you might not even know you're getting them.

CHRIS CONLAN: Yeah, the only evidence may be the staining on the sheets of the mattress from where they go to the bathroom, and other than that, you may not even know they're there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wow. Nancy is calling us from Point Loma, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, I got an e mail yesterday that indicated that we're possibly getting the bed bugs from clothes that was made in China, and when we buy the new clothes, we should put it in the cryer for 20 minutes to make sure the eggs are killed. Is there any truth to this?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask Chris and rob.

CHRIS CONLAN: Not that I can blame any one country or the other. Any time you bring anything in the home and you're not sure where it came from, it certainly wouldn't hurt it run it through a wash and dry cycle.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There are some over the counter so to speak bed bug sprays, that are being sold now, and I'm wondering, do any of them have any efficacy? Tell us what they do or what they don't do.

ROB CARTWRIGHT: Here's the problem you have with pesticides if you don't if you're not a licensed apindicator, and you don't have the expertise on how to, one, apply a pesticide, and a lot of people when they apply pesticides they think more is better, and sometimes they get themselves in trouble. But you gotta understand what the difference between a repellant and a nonrepellant pesticide is. If you use a repellant pesticide, you may actually repel the inset right into you. There are studies done that there are certain pesticides on the market that says there's a growth inhibitor in it, and it causes the female to over ovulate, and she will lay two times the eggs in your house, when you think you're killing them. Being that the bed bugs generally hide within doesn't realize it's actually going through a pesticide, and it's gonna eventually die. Most of the time you're buying over the counters are repellants or contact killers so unless you see the actual insect and spray it on it, you're not gonna get the result as you would going to a professional and you may make the problem even worse.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Does the county have any specific procedure that you're recommending people follow in trying to control or eradicate bed bugs?

CHRIS CONLAN: What we usually tell people is number one, maybe sure that's what you're dealing with. The bed bugs try to get the insect identified. It's so difficult to eradicate these on your own. And the other problem that I know rob's gonna bring up at all is many of the over the counter pesticides, bed bugs are now resistant to. So it makes it difficult. So you may any out and buy something that you may think will work, and it just doesn't.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me take one more call call. Good morning, Alexander, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, how's it going thanks for taking my call. Yeah, I went through this, we got bed bugs and we actuallingly managed to get rid of them. Ultimately it took a move to do it but we did. And in my reading on it, I did a lot of research, and I found that it seems like one of the big reasons why we're getting the resurgence in bed bugs is this is kind of a little bit of a delayed effect from the banning of EDT. I guess that was yeah. So why does if seems like most of the the newer research is showing that DDT is really pretty benign for humans but the problem really being comes as being used as a large scale insecticide out doors and gets into the bird population. And I was wondering, I know that is the effect really gets a bad rap, but it seems like it might really be the best option it seems like we have to really address this.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Alexander thanks for that point. Let me bring it up to rob. What do you think about that? Bringing back DDT to especially if this bed bug problem continues to grow?

ROB CARTWRIGHT: I just think with the problems that you have with DDT is that you have multiple insects that are helpful for the environment that you you know, with nowadays there's what's called integrated pest management systems that are specifically targeted for problem pests 678 we don't want to go out there and take out every insect, bird, and everything down the food chain. The way that we've been treating bed bugs nowadays they're successful, but the problem you know, is that there has to be cooperation between the tenants, the landlords and everybody involved. And the system works if you put a good program together with the incesticides that we have that are labeled specifically for restricted use for bed bugs, the system will work. I think bringing back DDT at this point would I don't think it'd be a good thick. I think we got plenty of things on the market, is just having a professional go in there and do it properly. Working with the county, I work with the county agricultural department quite frequently and we're all working together to make this work. Soap there's a way of doing it, it's just gonna take some time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how much time do you think it is gonna take Chris.

CHRIS CONLAN: For yeah, well, this is something we're gonna have to live with. Ive mean, bed bugs are here to stay. Until they come up with something other something else that has the same, really, not super great efficacy on them, we're gonna have to live with it. Just like you get a cockroach infestation from time to time. You learn to deal with it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. And I just want to emphasize the fact that even though it's sort of, like, really gross to think about, they don't really pose any real health hazard for most people.

CHRIS CONLAN: Yeah, at this point in time, they're not known to transmit any diseases, and the only real health effects are just the reactions that some people get to the bites. As you know, some people have a more severe reaction than others.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, you gave us things to dream about tonight, I want to thank Chris Conlan, and Rob Cartwright, owner of Cartwright Termite and Pest Control. Thank you both so much. And you've been listening to KPBS. Post your comments to slash These Days. Coming up, calming fears about school violence, that's as These Days continues here on KPBS.