Bedbugs a Growing Problem in the Inland Northwest

October 23, 2016 | Jonathan Glover

Bedbug infestations in general are on the rise in the Inland Northwest, with some exterminators reporting dozens of calls a day.

Getting rid of one bedbug is simple – just squish it with your finger.

But getting rid of a lot of bedbugs? That’s tricky. Just ask Jason and Serenity Longacre, who live in a house with three family friends, three dogs, three cats, a bearded dragon and a snake.

Their home, which they acknowledge is quite messy, is a rental in the Shadle area, sandwiched between more expensive homes with nice yards and clean porches.

Several months ago, the Longacres and their guests started noticing red marks on their arms and legs that itched like mosquito bites. Then they noticed the dogs digging at the furniture. Then they noticed the bedbugs.

So they called an exterminator.

One late-August morning, Robert Cummins, of Pointe Pest Control, and his three employees arrived at the home with a large, white trailer. Inside were six chest-high industrial heaters powered by a bulky diesel engine. All six heaters would later blow 120-degree air into the home for six hours – the only way to make sure all of the bugs are killed.

While doing a walk-through, they made note of areas where they suspected the bedbugs were hiding. After pulling up furniture and overturning beds, their suspicions were warranted: Tiny bedbugs scurried away as Cummins illuminated their brown bodies with a flashlight and prodded them with the tip of his pen.

“Those bugs are well fed,” Cummins said, pointing to the elongated blood-red specks clinging to the side of a mattress, looking a bit like red grains of rice.

As the head of Pointe Pest Control’s Bed Bug Division, Cummins has had his fair share of run-ins with profound infestations, with bedbugs under drawers, in kitchens, on wheelchairs, around the ceilings and walls, and even in the Bibles next to beds.

This isn’t one of those, and they’re the exception. But bedbug infestations in general are on the rise in the Inland Northwest, with some exterminators reporting dozens of calls a day.

Cummins said the number of infestations he treated in the first half of the year was up 66 percent over the same period in 2015. He’s had so many new clients that he ordered an extra truck – making it three total – and hired more crew members.

“We had the busiest month ever last month,” he said in early October. “It was something like 459 last month alone.”

Tiny bugs, big problem

Nicole and Matt Davis and their five children share a small, three-bedroom unit at the Regal Arms Apartments, a large complex in north Spokane that houses low-income tenants.

“We’ve got popcorn ceilings. You know, those old ’70s-style asbestos popcorn ceilings? Bedbugs like to hide in those,” Nicole Davis said while sitting near a field at Regal Elementary, a few blocks from her apartment.

The family has lived at Regal Arms for eight years, and for the past five years they’ve endured a vicious cycle: They discover bedbugs and alert their property manager, an exterminator comes in to eradicate them, and then around eight months later, the little bloodsuckers are back.

One time, Nicole Davis said she found bedbugs scurrying out of the lint trap in a clothes dryer.

Heather Kelly, a neighbor who has lived at the complex for three years and also has bedbugs, said the problem has gotten so out of hand that she’s closed off her children’s bedroom because it is so badly infested.

“My kids no longer have beds,” she said. “Tossed those out. Tossed out the couch, too.”

Cases like Kelly’s and the Davises’ aren’t uncommon. Multiple pest-control companies in the Inland Northwest say bedbug-related calls account for a large portion of their business. And it’s not just renters who are calling (though it is the most common). Calls are coming in from hospitals, restaurants and libraries – anyplace the public regularly visits.

Most companies don’t want to share exact numbers for competitive reasons, but they confess amazement over the number of calls they’re receiving – even during the slow seasons.

“I’ve had three people call just today,” Josh Sammeli said in August. He owns Affordable Pest and Weed Control, a small outfit compared with big exterminators like Orkin or Prime Pest Control.

Until 10 years ago, Raymond VanderLouw, a commercial sales inspector at Pointe Pest Control, had never even heard of a bedbug. While responding to a call from a resident who found strange bugs in their home, he was bemused – he’d never seen anything like it before. He had to check the bug reference guide he keeps in his work vehicle just to see what he was dealing with.

Now, the phone rings off the hook.

“The first two days this week I booked 17 different bedbug calls,” he said in August. “I get calls constantly. I’ve had a dozen calls today.”

Bedbugs spread to Spokane as they have to most U.S. cities, but a few years ago the number of calls ballooned, exterminators say.

“My guys start work at 7 in the morning and they finish 12 hours later,” Cummins said. “This season has been the busiest by far.”

Bedbug 101

Bedbugs – or Cimex lectularius, the most common type – are small, brown, chili-flake-size parasitic insects that prefer to feed on human blood. Their name comes from their favorite hiding place: near or inside beds, or other warm areas. As one pest-control specialist put it, “Wherever you spend the most time, the bedbugs will follow.”

They’re mostly active at night. When they find exposed skin – faces, necks, arms and legs – they start to feed by piercing the skin and sucking blood. The whole process takes about 20 minutes. Once they’re full, they go back into hiding and wait a few days before starting the process over again.

This goes on for six to 12 months – the average lifespan of a bedbug in warm conditions. All the while, the well-fed females are laying five to six eggs a day, which take about 37 days to fully mature.

Bedbugs have been known as human parasites for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until recently that they’ve started to become a nuisance nationwide. That’s because up until the 1990s, bedbugs were effectively eradicated in the United States. But government bans on certain pesticides – namely, DDT – and resistance to others have made bedbugs a headache for exterminators.

Rose Zhu, an assistant research professor at Washington State University’s Department of Entomology, has devoted a large portion of her career to studying bedbugs, specifically their resistance to modern insecticides. According to her, bedbugs’ resistance, coupled with their ability to hibernate, is what makes them a nightmare for anyone unlucky enough to become a host.

“They just survive,” she said. “Even without feeding on blood, they can survive for a long time. Even for more than one year.”

A renter’s nightmare

Rather than spray bedbugs with chemicals (which may or may not work), the preferred method to exterminate them is to “heat treat” the entire premise. Bedbugs can’t survive in temperatures north of 120 degrees, so the only sure-fire way to get rid of them is to lug in giant heaters, vacate the premises, then super-heat the air – a process that takes half a day and can cost upward of $2,000.

For people who own a home, it may be a one-time expense. But for apartment renters, the process isn’t so simple.

Terri Anderson, a Spokane-based community organizer for Tenants Union of Washington State, said she receives multiple calls a day from renters complaining about bedbugs, and specifically, getting stuck with the cost of extermination.

“They’ll say, ‘There was a bedbug problem in my building and now I have a bill on my door,’ ” she said.

The Residential Landlord-Tenant Act suggests that landlords pay for bedbug extermination, unless their tenants live in a single-family home or they can prove their tenants are at fault. But fault is a tricky thing to nail down.

Bedbugs can latch onto clothing (their eggs are especially sticky), so transferring them from one apartment to the next is easy. It’s almost impossible to know where they came from, especially because there are so many avenues for them to spread.

Old furniture, used clothing and even library books are prime culprits. This summer, the Spokane Public Library warned employees of confirmed sightings of bedbugs in returned library books and DVD cases. Officials contacted the Spokane County Library District for help, because they too had a bedbug problem in the past.

“We got some ideas on how to approach the situation,” said Caris O’Malley, the deputy director of the Spokane Public Library. “What we learned is that bedbugs like hard, confined places to conceal themselves when they’re not feeding. Plastic cases, carpet, shelving and books are some places they like to go.”

Since bedbugs don’t spread disease, they’re not a high priority for local health districts, including the Spokane Regional Health District. The only bedbug-related sightings that are officially tracked are those in buildings that deal with the public, such as hotels, motels and hospitals.

Paying the bug bill

Unlike mold, which is relatively inexpensive to remove, Anderson, of the Tenants Union, said landlords are hesitant to fork over thousands of dollars per residence to remove the bugs, especially if there’s a chance they could come back. That’s why it’s not uncommon for a landlord to hire an exterminator then pass the bill to a tenant, proof of origin or not.

Nicole and Matt Davis said they’ve had to fight Sryinga Property Management, which owns and operates the Regal Arms Apartments, after multiple failed heat treatments.

“I know for a fact no matter what you do, my building specifically is riddled” with bedbugs, Nicole Davis wrote to Syringa in July.

But Syringa says quite the opposite. Since the company took over management of the Regal Arms Apartments in 2014, it’s treated more than 13 units for bedbugs and has spent about $60,000 – none of which was charged to renters. Michele Baldwin, Syringa’s regional property manager in Boise, said the bedbugs kept returning to the complex because the Davises’ apartment was unreasonably cluttered.

“I personally have gone into their unit, because their unit has been treated three times,” she said. “No other unit had bedbugs surrounding their unit. It is because their unit is considered – to the extreme of the extreme – filthy and dirty.”

But Anderson said she’s met with multiple tenants whose landlords have stuck them with the cost of extermination.

If they don’t – or can’t – pay, some landlords have tried to illegally tack on the cost to their rent. If they don’t pay the extra rent, their only realistic option is to move out – or contact people like Anderson, who usually direct them to seek legal help.

“As far as I can tell, this sort of thing happens a lot,” said Barry Pfundt, an attorney at the Center for Justice whose clients include renters in these exact situations. “The phone here rings off the hook from tenants asking for assistance.”

But even then, he admits most people won’t go through the hassle. Instead, they’ll either pay the fee or try to move, even during a historically tight rental market. Or, if the tenant is on a month-to-month lease, the landlord will hand them a notice to vacate.

“What a human needs to survive is food, water and safety. And we get those from our home,” Pfundt said. “This is all just completely unregulated.”

Local housing quality task force could consider bedbugs

This past summer, bedbugs dominated the Longacres’ peace of mind. As they prepared to spend the next six hours away from their home while it was treated for bedbugs, the family huddled by their car, discussing what to do with their day and what the plan would be if the bugs returned.

Luckily, they didn’t return; their home is bedbug-free and the itchy bumps have all disappeared.

The Davises, too, seem to be in better spirits – the last treatment worked at their apartment.

“It looks like they are finally gone!” Nicole Davis wrote in an email. “Fingers crossed.”

Business has slowed for Cummins and crew, but they’re still booked a week out. He said calls usually slow down this time of the year, because people either can’t or don’t want to pay for a thousand-dollar heat treatment on top of holiday food and presents. He said the bedbugs are still here, and if anything, the cold months draw them even closer to people as they look for warmth.

Anderson, meanwhile, is still knee-deep in renters looking for help. She’s been prodding the city for several years on drafting some sort of ordinance or code enforcement that would help tenants, and she might see some progress soon.

In May, the Mayor’s Housing Quality Task Force was formed – a 50-person team comprised of landlords, affordable housing providers, nonprofit workers and others with stakes in Spokane’s housing market. The task force has two committees: one focused on affordability issues, the other on quality.

City Councilwoman Amber Waldref, who got the ball rolling on the task force last fall, said one of the primary goals of the team is to look at other municipalities and see what’s worked and what hasn’t – including their handling of bedbugs.

She and City Councilwoman Karen Stratton started researching the pests with other members of the housing task force after hearing the stories from residents. Whether this leads to any sort of code enforcement or ordinances further down the road will have to wait until the task force gets up and running, Waldref said.

“I think we can do better,” she said. “And we all know that. We want to be ahead of the curve – proactive, not reactive.”

But until then, some residents are hopeful and some are not. Nicole and Matt Davis are ready to move on from the eight-month-bedbug cycle. And luckily, they haven’t had to pay a dime to remove them.

Jason Longacre, on the other hand, is still a little sour over the whole ordeal.

“It’s an epidemic,” he said.