Sleeping With the Enemy

There have been numerous reports in the media lately of bedbugs infesting hotels, office buildings, movie theaters, libraries, retail stores, and even taxicabs. If you think campus residence halls have been exempt, think again.

Reddish-brown adult bedbugs are wingless and grow to be 4 to 5 mm in length and 1.5 to 3 mm wide. Bedbugs hitch rides on clothing, suitcases, and backpacks to find new homes in their hosts' sheets, mattresses, and headboards. Parasitic, they feed on blood. The good news is their bites are not known to pass on any diseases. The bad news is their bites can leave itchy, painful welts.

Changing the behavior of students to avoid infestation by bedbugs may be a losing battle. Students love to crash in friends' rooms, making the transfer of bedbugs from one room to another probable. The best course of action seems to be identifying a small infestation early and eradicating it before it becomes extreme. So, many college and university administrators are working to educate their student bodies on the dangers of bedbugs and what to do if they suspect a problem.

Identifying the Problem
The effort to educate the students coming to live on campus typically begins before they ever leave home, with letters sent to them and their parents before they even leave for campus. Once on campus, some facility managers are creating Websites with more bedbug information and instructions on where to report a suspected problem.

Unfortunately, even identifying a problem can be an issue. Many people mistake a bedbug bite for a mosquito bite and never report the issue. In addition, some people don't react to bedbug bites at all. "Twenty to 25 percent of the population doesn't react to bites, so there can be a problem and you may not know it," says Barbara Ogg, extension educator with Lincoln-based University of Nebraska. Dan Mizer, senior associate director of Residence Life at Texas A&M University in College Station agrees. "We have had 35 reports of suspicious bites since August of 2010. Though we treated in every case, only two cases were confirmed activity," says Mizer.

"Because being tipped off by residents is unreliable, I recommend facility managers use bedbug sniffing dogs during class breaks," says Ogg. Mizer, again, agrees. "We have what I consider a very proactive approach. We have a contract with J & K Canine Academy of High Springs, FL, which has trained dogs to sniff out bedbugs. They are said to be 98 percent effective. The dogs only scent viable bugs (live bugs or eggs)," he says. "We have been bringing the dogs in to scent all the residence hall rooms in August for the last three summers."

Eradicating the Problem
Once a bedbug problem has been identified, now comes the issue of getting rid of them. In the past, the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, more commonly known as DDT, was used to kill bedbugs. Spraying with DDT lasted for over a year, and no bug could resist it. But, DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972 because it contributed to the near extinction of birds, including the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon. DDT is a persistent chemical that becomes concentrated in animal tissues, rising in concentration in animals that are higher in the food chain. Pesticides in use today are not as effective, as bedbugs have developed a resistance to them and it can take several treatments to successfully rid the area. This is costly and time consuming.

“When we get a report of possible bedbugs, a licensed pest control officer visits the room the same day and looks for signs of activity," says Mizer. Signs of activity can include skins (when bedbugs grow they molt out of their skins), black dots on the sheets (excrement from the bugs), or blood smears on the sheets from bedbugs that have been crushed. "Even if the pest control officer sees no signs of bedbugs, we still chemically treat the room. An RA follows up a week later to see if the problem is taken care of."

"Bedbugs die at a low lethal temperature, so companies have developed heating systems to heat up rooms, houses, etc," says Ogg. "They move furniture away from walls and blow heat around the area to 120 degrees and use remote sensors to keep track of heat levels."

Texas A&M has purchased one of these heating systems for use on campus. "If we know it is a case bedbugs, we have a heating system of four 460-volt commercial-grade heaters with a generator on a trailer hitch," says Mizer. "The truck pulls up right under window. The heaters are placed in the room, and the plugs are dropped out the window to the generator."

In the morning, the room is heated to 125-130 degrees. Twenty remote sensors are placed throughout the room, so the staff that operates the equipment can monitor the room's temperature. When the temperature gets to 100 degrees, they turn on 20 fans in the room to circulate the heat.

"This process turns the room into a convection oven to cook the bedbugs," says Mizer. "This last six-and-a-half to seven hours from start to finish, typically. Then, they chemically treat the rooms for a one-two punch to make doubly sure all the bugs are dead. The spraying is basically an extra precaution. Residents can move back in that night, once the temperature drops back to normal."

When only chemical treatments are used, it can take several treatments to permanently get rid of the infestation. "The heat treatment is done in one day, and it is very rare to have a repeat occurrence," says Mizer. Another plus is that belongings do not have to be moved during the heat treatment. "We ask the resident remove medications and cosmetics, but everything else can stay in the room. Computers, TVs, and video games are not harmed by the heat."

So, until chemists come up with a new DDT, early detection seems to be the best defense against bedbugs. An educated and vigilant student body can be a great help in that area.

Danielle Przyborowski is a Dayton, OH-based freelance writer with experience in educational and architectural topics.

About the Author

Danielle Przyborowski is a Dayton, Ohio-based freelance writer with experience in educational and architectural topics.