Bedbugs: Tiny Pests are Nuisance, But Not a Health Risk

April 19, 2018 | Kayla Collier

Lamoille County, Vermont is fighting a community-wide bed bug infestation.

“Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite. But if they do, then take your shoe and hit them till they’re black and blue.”

For many adults, the familiar rhyme is a throwback to childhood, but for some folks in Lamoille County, it has become all too real. They’re waking up with red welts or itchy patches on their skin, and the rhyme’s suggested killing method won’t eradicate the problem.

Last November, Diane Reilly, principal at Hyde Park Elementary School, notified the public that a live bedbug had hitchhiked to school on a student’s clothing, prompting her to work with facilities manager Dylan Laflam on a plan that she believed would keep them from spreading in the building and to other students’ homes.

“The hard part is that this is a community problem coming into the school, and we can’t change what’s happening in people’s homes,” Reilly said in November. “I think this could be just the tip of the iceberg in Lamoille County.”

She may have been right.

While the elementary school has been watching closely for the blood-sucking critters on a daily basis, and the problem doesn’t seem to be spreading there, it has become a problem in the surrounding community that has left people scratching their heads about how to eradicate it.

“I have received more than a handful (of bedbug reports) in the past year,” said Hyde Park health officer Keith Ulrich — just under a dozen, he says. The most recent was about two months ago, but that doesn’t mean the problem’s gone away, and there could be any number of other families who haven’t reported.

“I’d say we have an infestation in town, and it may even be spreading to public buildings,” Ulrich said, because the bugs tend to stow away in luggage and backpacks, on clothing, furniture and bedding, and can live for a while without a meal.

“As long as people continue to pick up that ‘nice chair’ on the roadside, we will have an issue, and we are coming up on garage sale season,” Ulrich said.

If you do want that garage-sale couch, there are things you can look for.

• Are there egg casings or shed skin in cracks and crevices?

• Fold back the seams and look for active bugs in each crevice. Examine the underside of the sofa and inside any tears in the fabric.

• If you’re still concerned, either don’t buy the piece, or give the furniture a thorough cleaning before bringing it into your home.

Ulrich’s biggest concern is that, although he’s a health officer, he doesn’t have any tools to fix the problem.

If the pests get into the common areas of a multiple-rental unit, he can push the property owner to hire an exterminator, but for individual family dwellings — which make up all the reports he’s received — it’s up to the family to get rid of them.

The Department of Health considers bedbugs a nuisance rather than a health risk, because the critters don’t spread diseases. Because of that classification, there is no public money to help pay for extermination, either, and it can be expensive.

The best way to treat for bedbugs, according to Stowe Pest Control owner Don Lesure, is a pesticide known as DDT, but it was banned from use in the United States years ago, so the only other option is to basically cook the bugs to death.

The affected area has to be brought up to at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit for three hours.

Stowe Pest Control, a company in Barre, uses four large heaters that are about the size of a roadside trash can with remote temperature control. The heaters have to be run off a 40-kilowatt generator, because “nobody’s home has that kind of power,” Lesure said, and the process could cost $1,500 to $2,000 for a single treatment.

Larger homes may need two treatments, doubling that charge.

Taking bedbugs to task

Capstone Community Action in Morrisville has fielded a number of calls from people who don’t normally use the nonprofit’s services, but didn’t know where else to turn to deal with bedbugs, said Mel Pena, director of Capstone’s Head Start program.

In response, Capstone — along with the Lamoille Interagency Networking Team, which joins together other public service agencies in the community — have put together a small bedbug task force to provide information to the public, come up with a plan to help families squash the problem, and destigmatize the issue so families feel comfortable reporting the problem.

“Bedbugs don’t care how much is in your checkbook, what race you are; they’re pretty nonjudgmental,” Pena said.

A small group of parents is talking with local legislators about how to change the Department of Health’s classification of a bedbug to a health risk, and the state Agency of Human Services has started to divert some funds to help families and landlords who can’t afford extermination.

The task force is also looking into whether a community can buy its own extermination equipment.

Lesure says his tools cost $62,000 and many other extermination companies have paid more for their equipment.

Volunteer fire departments are able to put out fires in their towns. Could the community use a similar approach to snuffing out bedbug infestations with a volunteer patrol?

The task force is looking into it.

The Lamoille County bedbug task force is holding its next meeting Thursday, April 26, at 1 p.m. at the Capstone Community Action building in Morrisville, and is open to public comment on the matter.

Affected communities

While Hyde Park’s health officer reports an infestation, other towns in Lamoille County have fared well so far.

Johnson town administrator Brian Story, the deputy health officer, says there have been a few cases in Johnson rental units. Landlords have been notified, and as far as he knows, it hasn’t gone any further than that.

Todd Thomas, Morristown’s health officer, says he’s received only two reports in the last seven years. Both were on Bridge Street, and both were traced back to families purchasing used mattresses.

“My biggest concern as the health officer in Morrisville is the movie theater, because if bedbugs get into the plush seats, they could shut down the business,” Thomas said. “They are already getting less business with online movie-streaming sites.”

Planning Director Tom Jackman says “so far, so good” in Stowe, but admits that if people don’t want him to know about an infestation, especially in a resort town, he won’t hear about it.

“I only have jurisdiction over rental codes if a tenant complains,” he said.

Wolcott, Cambridge and Eden health officers also reported that, as far as they know, their towns are in the clear.

Once you have bedbugs, though, washing and drying bedding and clothing on high heat can at least limit the problem for people who may not have the resources to eliminate them.

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