Bloodsucking bedfellows

Resurrected bedbug infestation presents a real threat

It took a 20-word tweet to send the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival into an uproar before it even began: movie critic James Rocchi’s assertion that “… Torontonian friend got, yes, bedbugs at the Scotiabank [festival venue] – aka where all press screenings are.”

Cyber-hysteria ensued as the news spread, garnering headlines like “Icky! Toronto Film Festival Infest [sic] With The Creepy-Crawlies!” on widely read gossip site, even as the festival’s organizers struggled to put a lid on what was, in fact, a false alarm. The hours of needless frenzy were indicative of a much larger issue – a bedbug panic that has gripped North America following a summer of resurgence for the nocturnal bloodsuckers, who have found their way into retail stores, libraries, and even a Times Square movie theatre.

“It’s a bit surprising,” wrote Stephanie Boucher, curator of the Lyman Entomological Museum at Macdonald Campus, in an email to the daily. “The bedbug situation … was almost completely eradicated for the past 50 years and is now making an impressive comeback.”

The resurgence has been tentatively attributed to the pests’ evolved resistance to insecticides. A 2007 University of Kentucky study found a “widespread” resistance among bedbugs to common commercial insecticides – which likely developed during their near half-century of inactivity – and the authors added ominously that “without development of new tactics for bedbug management, further escalation of this public health problem should be expected.”

Increased international travel may also be helping bedbugs spread. A 2008 Danish study noted that from 2003 to 2007 bedbug inquiries in Europe were most frequent between July and November, and then spiked again in January (following Christmas holiday travel). Bedbugs “hitchhike” easily on travellers, and their clothing, and a 2010 National Pest Management Association (NPMA) survey of exterminators concluded that once they settle into a domain, the bloodsuckers are “THE most difficult pest to treat.”

“It takes only a pregnant female hiding in your [suitcase] and brought back to your apartment to start an infestation,” Boucher wrote. Once inside, “the population builds up very rapidly.”

Despite the fact that bedbugs are very unlikely to transmit disease, they tend to leave painful bites on their sleeping victims and the NPMA survey warned that “the emotional and mental toll of experiencing a bed bug infestation can be severe.”

“It was a horrible experience,” said Greg (not his real name), a U3 chemistry student who discovered bedbugs in the previous tenants’ furniture a week after moving into his new Plateau apartment. Greg’s apartment was fumigated twice to no avail, and he eventually began sleeping in a turtleneck to avoid bites on his neck. “They’re like little ninja bugs,” he added. “You can never find all of them.”

The bedbugs’ spread can be worsened by residents’ reluctance to discuss or report them early on. Montreal Public Health’s most recent bedbug publication reassures tenants off the bat – “any house, apartment, or building can be a haven for bedbugs. No need to be embarrassed if these bugs end up moving in with you.” 
“People are sometimes ashamed to have insect problems in their house,” Boucher wrote, “but bedbug infestation has nothing to do with unsanitary conditions.”

The scarcity of comprehensive research on bedbug proliferation has only compounded the issue, and the situation is so worrisome that Ontario MPP Michael Colle is organizing a “bedbug summit” on September 29 at the Ontario legislature, that he hopes will draw federal attention and resources to the issue. “There’s no data or hard scientific facts about the proliferation,” Colle told CTV Toronto, citing the bedbug scare at the Toronto festival. “[The federal government] has got to be involved in getting a national health strategy to deal with this thing.”

Boucher agreed that increased public focus will only help the situation by urging increased awareness and research. “I think it is a good thing that the media are talking about it,” Boucher wrote. “There are people working on improved detection techniques and better control methods…so I am thinking that [hopefully] the problem should not become that much worse.”