The return of the bed bugs

[Editor's note: The following column is released in advance of the August 2010 issue of Security Dealer & Integrator magazine, which has extensive coverage on hotel security, but this bed bug issue is so big that we had to break it here first.]

If you travel for business or pleasure, you need to know this. And if you're a security director of a hotel or a hotel chain, then you and your CFO and CEO need to read closely and think hard on this subject.

Last month I wrote about situational awareness in my monthly column in Security Dealer & Integrator (SD&I) magazine and this month, I'm living out a new situation that you need to be aware of. On a recent business trip, I stayed at a lovely, high-end hotel and awoke the second morning to find three little bug bites on me. I didn't think anything about them really. Bugs don't bother me. They're everywhere and harmless for the most part. That last morning, day three, I awoke to find an easy count of 45 bug bites on me. I was Beyond Horrified and highly bothered. And nope, I never felt one of them bite me!

In informing the hotel that I thought I might have been bitten by bedbugs, I was told, "can't be so, we treat for that!" As their mouth is saying this, my brain is saying, 'not well enough!' Next I was told I had an allergy to their detergent and lastly I had hives. Security was sent to my room to investigate the matter! Security? This isn't a housekeeping issue? The nicest young man arrived at the door and as we examined the bedding, I asked, what are we looking for? He replies, "Madam, I don't have clue, I'll get help." An older gentleman arrived asking if I'd show him the bites and he photographed the ones I would allow him to see. And as I was fleeing the hotel as fast as I could, I whispered to the desk folks, what do I do to ensure I don't take them home? They giggled at me, saying no need to whisper. They retreated and returned telling me there was no one in housekeeping (at 10 a.m.) but don't take your suitcase inside and wash all my clothes. This proved to be pretty inadequate information. I should have been given a written sheet that said, if you think you may have been exposed to bedbugs, it is recommended that you completely strip off everything, including your shoe before entering your home, leaving your suitcase, handbag, carry on, "everything" outside of your home. After stripping down, you can bag all your clothes in a clear, large, sealable plastic bag until they can be treated but do not bring anything, your clothes, shoes, suitcase or any handheld bags into your house until they too have been fully treated. Scurry to your shower and scrub a dub, dub making sure there are no eggs on your body anywhere. And I'll get to how you treat your clothes, suitcases and bags in just minute.

Yes, I'd already removed a layer of two of flesh at the hotel. But my suitcase had been lying on the floor for three days and my clothes were strewn about on chairs and laying on the stool at the base of the bed, just waiting for the invaders to jump on. When I got to the airport, I rifled through my bag for some cozy jeans to wear on the plane ride home. Got home, left my suitcase outside, tossed my handbag on the bed, and rolled onto the sofa in my clothes to watch some tube before crashing for the night. I was already screwed. I just wasn't properly educated on the severity of the issue and exactly what to do.

Bedbugs easily and invisibly "hitchhike" around in suitcases, clothing, bags, anything. They're translucent and the size of a pinhead to start with and in 21 days they can grow to 1/4 inch. According to The National Pest Management Association (NPMA) "bed bugs themselves are reproducing in surprising amounts, by more than 500 percent over the past few years." They are reaching epidemic proportions in the U.S. having been almost eradicated in the 50's by DDT, which is no longer approved for use by the government. I personally think we need to revisit the idea of bringing it back for inside structures where it doesn't hurt bird but you can make up your own mind on this issue. I'd gladly use it in my house this very second. Bedbugs are not just in hotels although hotels are a large contributor to their spreading existence. They are in apartments, in rental furniture and at used clothing stores in particular but are also on college campuses, in stores in places where we share spaces with each other. They don't care where they live as long as they can eat.

If you get one bug in your house, it's big trouble. It's reported that a single female bed bug can lay up to 12 eggs a day and 200 hundred or more in a lifetime. They lay their eggs in dark, uneven places, in tiny crevices, under the edge of carpets, in the edge of picture frames, the underside of drawers, in the seam of anything, in a wall socket, the cracks in your floors, bedding, pillows, mattresses, curtains...you're getting the picture right? The eggs hatch in six to seventeen days, they feed and they lay more eggs.

To get rid of them you must strip the beds of all linens, take down your curtains, remove all your clothes from drawers and closets, wash and dry them on high heat for 30 to 60 minutes as high heat is the only thing known or believed to kill the eggs. Things that cannot or don't need to be washed must be run through the dryer on high heat for 30 to 60 minutes as well. So all those clothes you had with you while you were traveling, whether you wore them or not, need to be treated with high heat. Yup, even the dry cleaning stuff. No, you can't take everything to the dry cleaners or charities without treating them first because if you do you are just passing on the problem. And yes, you will purge as it's really the only thing to do in some cases and it's just too overwhelming to address it all in your home. Take a second and look around at everything you have there that might get contaminated. Me, I was a saver, had a lifetime of little mementos of love, friendships and adventures. I am a minimalist now. And honestly why my dryer didn't light on fire after days of running it nonstop is truly beyond me -- trust me, I wasn't sleeping but a few short hours. As you remove things from the dryer you need to immediately store them in large, clear, sealable, plastic bags until you are sure that all the bugs in your house are gone. I have in fact cleaned out Home Depots and Wal-Mart's supply of large clear sealable plastic bags! Plus, I have spent hours rolling those bags around looking for a pair of shorts, a bathing suit, or something that I needed to wear. And I have washed and dried things so many times now that I wonder why my clothes aren't three sizes smaller than they were before. You will learn that clothes are more resilient to heat than you thought. If you live in one of those hot climates, pack things into your car and bake them in the sun for a few hours or more. Nothing can live in the heat inside a car. Leave your suitcase in there when you come back from a trip. Open them up and bake the crap out of your things. I've had bedspreads, down quilts and the likes in my car for weeks now!

You must move all your furniture 18 inches from the wall, open wooden drawers, stand mattresses and box springs up on their side, remove the wall plates from wall sockets, so that everything can be sprayed. Some things cannot be treated and thus clocks, stereos, artwork, fabric chairs and sofas need to be carefully vacuumed along all the edges with a crevice tool and you're just beginning "the process." It will cost you thousands. You'll dread nightfall, you'll be looking for them everywhere, you'll feel them crawling on you even when there's nothing there. You will be overwhelmed, even depressed and it takes weeks or months to rid yourself of them. And the worst part is that they can lay dormant up to 18 months although their infants will die relatively quickly without biting someone, so I am told.

Your suitcases and bags that remain outside must be sprayed lavishly with a Pyrethrum bug spray and left outside until you are sure that any bugs in them are dead. My house has been sprayed twice already and it has taken me a couple weeks to even be willing to sleep in my own bed again but when I did they were beck! You can move into other rooms, where you think they aren't, but they'll follow your exhaled carbon dioxide and they'll find you eventually! I moved from room to room before my first spraying and I basically dragged one, some or many all over my house by doing this! We've clearly made progress in war but we are not done yet. And it will take me a long time to get over this, and put my life and my house back together after I am sure that these critters are really, really gone. And I'm not sure when that will be.

The saddest part of this is that I could have been spared this experience if the hotel clearly and decisively had told me what to do and not, in writing. But they and many others are all pointing fingers at each other saying, 'it's not me, I didn't do it, they did it.' In fact, the hotel where I stayed continues to profess that they did not have bedbugs! They say I got them out dining or walking even though I was not bitten before going to bed and was in the morning! And I have never been bitten by anything in my house before - ever - including a mosquito! They have clarified what they meant by 'we treat for this!' They treat quarterly even though the bugs reproduce weekly or monthly! They said they baited the room after I left and found no bugs there. According to Bed-bug.org, "Today, many pest control experts use baiting tactics for... infestations of such things as ants, roaches and spiders. These baiting tactics work well for their intended subjects, but since bed bugs are blood feeders, they do not fall for the baiting tricks used."

The hotel went on to tell me that they train their managers on what to look for and they even train some of their housekeeping staff! Every housekeeper in every hotel should be trained on what to look for as they are the first line of defense. But it's not easy to see bedbugs in the day and especially in a hotel that has freshly laundered sheet each day. And sadly the hotel told me that none of the guests staying in that room where I stayed have been bitten since! Really? You have guest in there and you didn't treat that room? Maybe the whole colony came back home with me? There certainly were bitters here! Did the guest not report it? And the exterminators tell me that they could be lying dormant, they don't need to eat right away if they aren't newly born. I think that whenever a guest says that they think they might have been bitten the hotel needs to treat that room, no questions asked. Two separate exterminators and I did not see any bugs anywhere in my rooms until after the first spraying when they showed up dead in my suitcase and in a pillow on my bed. Although they told me those red bumps with a clear red dot in the center are bedbug bites. And that they bite in threes often, having breakfast lunch and dinner...and especially if you move in the night and disturb them while they are dining.

In defense of this hotel and the many like them, I don't think they are well trained and particularly knowledgeable on the realities of this problem just because of the things they said to me. They need to take a ride on some of these bedbug websites and learn, learn, learn. They need to talk with multiple bedbug companies too. I also think that properly managing this problem has felt cost prohibitive because of the way they are doing this now. Not that I want to deny my new best friends their livelihood. Although they all tell me they have more work than they can handle. So if a man can come in my house with a sprayer on his back and treated my house why can't they have a maintenance person licensed or certified treating rooms as needed? There is nothing in their closets and drawers! Stand the mattress up and spray them, open empty drawer and spray them! Spray the carpet, come on that's too hard to do? I don't buy that. There are plenty of different chemicals to select from, the ones they have used here, only require that the room be empty for four short hours! Now what you need to do after this to ensure that the room is bug free before you expose guests is another story. They tell me here I have to be a sacrificial lamb and go back to be slaughtered, soon after they have sprayed to force the bugs to move through the killing agents. Hey, have some of your people stayed there? What a concept.

This is an exploding problem and it irresponsible of hotels to just keep pointing the finger elsewhere, keeping their heads in the sand and exposing guest to risk, and not stepping and up to eradicate this bedbug wildfire. Take a ride on Bedbugregistry.com and watch all the new reports every day. I hear Brian Williams has a special report on the subject tonight! And me, I didn't even report the hotel here and how many thousands of other haven't or don't or don't even know these sites exist?

If you stay in hotels for whatever reason, you are playing bedbug roulette. When I travel now, I keep all my clothes fresh and used in separate clear, sealed plastic bags and my dress clothes are in sealed suit hanging plastic bags in the closest! I don't leave my suitcase on the carpet on the floor. I leave it under the sink in the bathroom where it's way harder for these bugs to hide. I spray my suitcase with Pyrethrum when I get home. Don't become a victim here. No one's going to help you out, as you can clearly see here. Take control of this situation before it takes control of your life. And if this story saves one person from going through this experience then I am pleased. If it changes one hotel's policy, I am happier. If it starts a revolution, I am thrilled. I have seen a lot of warnings go viral. Send this to a friend, a frequent traveler, your travel agency, your college kids...pass it on. Be aware of this situation and protect yourself.

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