ELIZABETHTOWN — It seems people aren’t the only creatures getting comfortable in the beds of Bladen County.
“We‘ve had an outbreak of bed bugs,” Bladen County Schools Title IX Coordinator Robert Heavenridge informed the Board of Education recently.
Specific schools or students were not named, but staff informed the board the outbreak is becoming problematic in at least three schools. Since there is no legislation in North Carolina about bed bugs and education, public schools across the state are not allowed — as they are with lice, for example — to send children home who are infested.
As an example of how educators are dealing with the unfamiliar problem, staff informed the board an unnamed teacher welcomes an infested student to school every morning with a clean set of clothes. The child immediately changes into the clean clothes, and the infested ones are bagged and taken home by the teacher to be washed and brought back the following day, when the cycle continues.
“And they’re doing this every day?” questioned Tim Benton.
“(Teachers like this) are going to great lengths, because they love the kids, and they want to do what is necessary to help,” Superintendent Robert Taylor explained. “There’s not much else we can do.”
When one child’s legs were “eaten up with bug bites,” staff tried to enlist social services. The latter’s own hands, however, are also tied, because bed bug infestations do not constitute neglect according to North Carolina legislation.
Beyond just being concerning, the issue is costing the district. Were one child to bring bed bugs onto a bus, two buses would end up having to be treated, at a cost of $250 each for chemical treatment. Since the problem is not going away at home, such a child would just bring fresh bed bugs back each day. It could cost the district $500 each day for each student with bed bugs while doing nothing to eradicate the root of the problem — home.
“It sounds like it would be cheaper to treat the homes, but we don’t have the authority,” said Benton.
Staff said nothing is being done at home for some of the children. Parents — some of whom are renters — claim bug infestations are the problem of landlords, who claim there was no problem until the renter showed up.
“It can’t just end with each saying it’s not their problem,” offered Alan West.
“In some cases, it’s the housing development,” Gary Rhoda said. “Whose problem is that?”
“We’re dealing with economics and the expense of it,” suggested Heavenridge, referring to low-income families who can’t afford professional treatment.
Taylor turned to Attorney Gary Grady seeking legal advice.
“It seems this is state issue,” Grady said, shaking his head. “State legislature is going to have to step forward and require parental compliance.”
The board plans to revisit the issue in February.
Where are they?
The issue for Bladen County Schools is typical of what’s being seen across the country. Each year, the pest control company Orkin releases a report detailing the worst 50 cities in the U.S. for bed bug infestations, based on commercial and residential sites with confirmed infestations. In the January 2018 report, the cities covered the West Coast, the East Coast and everywhere in between. Six North Carolina cities made the list, including Raleigh and Durham (15), Charlotte (19), Asheville (25), and Greensboro and High Point (46).
Infestations are on the rise. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, New York City Schools reported 1,000 cases of bed bugs during the 2009/2010 school year. In just the span of one short year, the number of cases quadrupled to 4,000 during the 2010/2011 year.
According to the 2015 report Bugs Without Borders by the National Pest Management Association, nearly all (99.6 percent) of pest professionals nationwide treated bed bugs within the last year, a number that has been increasing since the 1990s.
The top three places professionals report finding bed bugs are apartments/condominiums (95 percent), single-family homes (93 percent) and hotels/motels (75 percent). The insects can also be found in high numbers in nursing homes, college dorms, offices, schools, daycare centers, hospitals, and public transportation.
We made our bed, now …
Walter McDuffie and Dana McDuffie run McDuffie Pest Control in Elizabethtown. The duo are two of the many pest professionals who have witnessed the rise of the problem.
“Bladen County Schools is not the first — and it won’t be the last — district with a problem, but it didn’t start in the schools,” said Dana.
“I started the business in 1964, right out of school,” Walter recounted. “There were a number of new pesticides, DDT being one, that really eradicated pests.”
Walter said organophosphates were so effective, in fact, that by the mid- to late-1900s, bed bugs had been virtually eliminated in the U.S. as a problem.
“Two things took place over the next 50 years: third world countries didn’t upgrade treatments, and they threw the same pesticides out year after year,” he said. “By throwing the same thing out over and over, bed bugs build up a high resistance to pesticides. It could kill 99 percent, but that 1 percent is highly resistant, and it finds another highly resistant mate, and soon they’re all resistant.”
With the increase in world travel in the latter part of the century, travelers began bringing these resistant bugs back from foreign hotels or homes. This occurred at the same time urbanization was taking off in the U.S., making it easier for any untreated infestation to spread. A country that had outlawed DDT and not replaced chemical bed bug treatment with anything else proved the perfect breeding ground, literally, for the critters. The insects flourished while the country waited through the years-long process of getting a pesticide labelled, a process not many companies wanted to undertake because of the expansive cost.
While the industry was trying to play catch-up in the chemical arena, it needed something with which to treat bed bugs immediately. Heat treatment proved an effective tool.
With heat treatment, temperatures inside a closed-off area are raised to 118 degrees — too hot for the bugs to survive. Such a treatment was considered by the Bladen County Board of Education for its bed bug problem on buses, but rejected as cost prohibitive for something that would only be a Band-Aid.
In the meantime, changes have been made on the chemical side. The EPA has to date approved 300 registered products that fall into seven chemical classes of pesticides widely used for bed bug control: pyrethins, pyrethroids, desiccants, biochemicals, pyrroles, neonicotinoids, and insect growth regulators.
“I’m not saying we’ve won, but we’re starting to hold the front line in this war,” Walter commented.
The problem with both the heat treatment and with pesticides is cost.
“Treatment is very thorough, and it takes a lot of labor,” Walter explained. “We have a lot of families that can’t afford that, for whatever reason, and they’re living with bed bugs.”
Over-the-counter treatments are available, but without knowing the species of the bug, people treating the problem themselves will be unlikely to stumble on a pesticide that works for the species in their home.
“The best idea is to get a professional,” McDuffie recommended.
Knowledge is power
For people in the industry like the McDuffies, as well as school district staff, education about bed bugs is key to keeping things under control. Regarding bed bugs, there are a lot of misconceptions.
“A lot of people think they’re roaches, but they’re not — they’re bed bugs,” Dana explained. “The good thing about bed bugs is they’re not a disease vector like fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, and even roaches. Bed bugs don’t seem to carry disease — all they do is use a sterile needle to get blood out.”
As members of the cimicid family, bed bugs are parasitic insects that feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals. Unlike mosquitoes — which bite one person and a few seconds later stick the same probiscus into another, thereby spreading infected blood — bed bugs only feed on one person at a time. They digest the meal blood completely, taking at least five days and sometimes months, before feeding again.
“We don’t know of any disease that bed bugs can transmit to humans,” remarked Dana.
“Nobody wants to be in bed with a hungry insect that wants their blood,” Walter conjectured, “but if there was a health hazard, there would be more attention to it. It’s more an annoyance.”
While the blood connoisseur may take its time to savor its meal, the bed bug is not picky about where it gets its food, despite popular belief to the contrary.
“A lot of people are embarrassed to admit they have bed bugs, but they are not — and I repeat, they are not — a sanitation issue,” Dana emphasized. “They don’t care if you’re clean or not. They’re hitchhikers and need a host, no matter how clean your house is.”
Many people believe that, like lice, bed bugs are difficult to see with the naked eye. Adult bed bugs, however, can be up to a quarter of an inch long, approximately the size of an apple seed. Mahogany or rust brown, with a flattened body, they are small enough to remain hidden in a suitcase or clothing and capable of fitting into small spaces the height of a credit card.
Hiding in tight places like mattresses, box springs, and even books, they can lie dormant up to 12 months without feeding. The fast travellers move on floors and walls when they come out from their daytime hiding places to feed at night. Bites are usually painless but can itch later.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” Dana said. “I don’t care if I go to a five-star hotel — I check all the beds and couches with a flashlight before I put any luggage down. I want to make sure I”m not bringing any bed bugs home.”
Signs of bed bugs
Signs of a bed bug infestation include:
— Waking up with itchy areas that weren’t present before sleeping. Unlike fleas, which primarily feed around the ankles, bed bugs feed on any areas of exposed skin. Unlike flea bites, bed bug bites do not have a dark red center.
— Blood stains on sheets or pillows
— Dark or rusty spots of bed beg excrement on bedding or walls
— Fecal spots, egg shells, or shed skins in crevices
— An offensive, musty odor excreted by bed bugs
The CDC says someone who suspects a bed bug infestation should:
— Remove all bedding and check carefully for signs of bugs or excrement.
— Remove the dust cover over the bottom of the box springs and examine the seams in the wood framing.
— Peel back the fabric where it is stapled to the wood frame.
— Check around the bed, including inside books, telephones, radios, the edge of the carpet, and electrical outlets.
— Check closets, as bugs can attach to clothing.
As always, anyone unsure about an infestation should consult a professional.
The following steps are recommended to prevent the spread of bed bugs:
— Using a flashlight, inspect any room where you still be staying for the presence of bed bugs, including the mattress, headboard, and luggage racks.
— Use luggage racks rather than the floor when travelling, and keep luggage away from the bed. Consider bringing a large plastic trash bag to keep suitcases in during hotel stays.
— Upon returning home, unpack directly into a washing machine and inspect luggage carefully. Vacuum suitcases.
— Never store suitcases under the bed upon returning home.
— Never bring second-hand furniture, especially mattresses and box springs, into a home without thoroughly examining.
— At home, work, or school, reduce clutter, which serves as an ideal habitat for bed bugs.
— Keep belongings stowed separately from those of other people in common areas.
— Discourage panic and the stigma associated with bed bugs.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.