The Uninvited Bed Fellows
Published Nov 2013
Abandoned mattresses and furniture on the sidewalk serve as a backdrop to San Francisco in most neighborhoods, so common they become almost invisible. Was there a blowout fight between fiancés causing belongings to go flying? Did someone get a new bed from Ikea and carelessly drop their 2008 model to the curb? Or is it the more likely option of insanity induced from the curse of bedbugs that caused someone to abandon their safest haven? Pack millions of people together in one place, and while culture and convenience will thrive, so will the creatures that prey on humans. Bedbugs — or, as they are better known throughout the scientific community, Cimex Lectularius — have plagued people for presumably as long as humans have been sleeping. They showed up in Egyptian artifacts dated some 3,500 years ago and also in Greek and Roman writings according to the National Bed Bug Association (aka NBBA). In Bill Bryson’s book At Home, he tells of how due to the prevalence of bedbugs in the early 1800’s “manufacturers often advertised how quickly and easily their beds could be dismantled for annual maintenance.” He also wrote that the fashion of brass beds was not due to their aesthetic, but mainly because they didn’t harbor any spots where bedbugs could live. Around the 1950s, however, bedbugs were almost completely eradicated, according to the NBBA: “American entomologists were hard-pressed to find a live bedbug for their laboratory work.” How is it then that this pest was almost complete extinct, only to be making such a vengeful comeback of late? As with any problem with multiple variables, the research is inconclusive, but there are a few factors that can be pointed to. The NBBA credits the widespread use of DDT in the 1950’s to the mass bedbug extermination — because as the use of the pesticides went down, the number of bedbug cases went up. Also, around the same time bedbugs started showing their red round bodies again, international travel was becoming increasingly more popular. Not to mention that these nocturnal blood-suckers have been co-evolving with us since we were probably cavemen. The NBBA has stated that over the past five years, bedbugs have increased by 5,000%, meaning that if you haven’t encountered one yet, you should be on the lookout. So what does that mean for us city-dwellers? Bedbugs are fairly harmless in reality. They aren’t known to carry any diseases, and their bites, while irritating, are not in the slightest life-threatening. However, the idea of an army of miniature vampires preying on your life source while you peacefully dream can have an effect on a person’s psyche. Not to mention once they have set up residence with you, it’s no small task to remove them. The San Francisco bedbug registry notes that there have been 446 reported infestations to date since 2006 — keep in mind that these are mostly public places like hotels, and to be fair are mostly in the Tenderloin District. There has been no shortage of press about the so-called epidemic of bedbugs all around the country as well as in SF. At the end of July, ABC reported on a Goodwill warehouse in San Francisco that had to get rid of countless merchandise due to an outbreak, costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars. My personal interest in bedbugs peaked when my boyfriend had a case close to two years ago. Accepting a used, free futon from a friend turned out to be one of the most regrettable choices of his 20s. Once he discovered the bites and had his suspicions, he hired a company called Scent Tek that uses dogs to sniff out the biting culprits so he could see exactly where they were living. At around $200 a visit for the dogs to poke around, it was no small financial investment. Eventually he managed to eradicate the pests with many a trip to the laundromat and multiple dog checks. I never contracted bedbugs, but his paranoia has seeped into our lives, as just last month, he hired the dogs to do a double check after a mosquito was in our bedroom (there was no trace of bedbugs). Upon starting this article, we did a quick Facebook poll, where several people sheepishly reported using the Scent Tek dogs for their own bedbug plights. Scent Tek has reported that in the Bay Area, it has conducted over 4,000 inspections since 2009. Another friend who responded to my bedbug inquiry relayed a story of traveling in Buenos Aires with her family to a cute hotel by Iguazu Falls only to realize they were carrying some unwanted hitchhikers home. She managed to catch them right away and get rid of the pests within a few weeks by being vigilant with washing her bedding. However, the emotional toll was high; in her words, “It cost me so many nights of sleep, I can’t even begin to count. At times I would convince myself that they were crawling all over me, and regularly woke up to check the sheets and below the mattress. Every morning I shook my clothes out at least twice and turned them inside out to make sure there weren’t any bugs inside.” Bedbugs are certainly something to be avoided at all costs, and after the reality of the likelihood of hosting the ancient pests has set in, it’s easy to make smarter choices. Use caution when buying used mattresses and other furniture off Craigslist, check used clothing items for bugs, be sure to check mattress corners for any bug infestations when traveling internationally or domestically, and in general, if you think you have bedbugs, get it checked out sooner than later. The San Francisco Department of Health requires landlords to take action if you suspect the nightly visitors: “Property owners or managers must respond to tenant bedbugs complaints by securing the services of a licensed pest control operator to investigate the concern—and conduct appropriate treatment.” Remember you are not alone—so try to maintain your sanity as well.