August 23, 2013 4:43 pm

What’s bugging America?

In Manhattan, it was easier to bring guns into the lobby of my building than a new mattress
Illustration of a bedbug by Angus Greig©Angus Greig

Earlier this week, while travelling on an American Airlines flight to Miami, I spotted a curious page in the in-flight shopping magazine. “Thermal Strike Heated Luggage!” declared an advertisement for suitcases which can heat their contents to 140F (60C) – starting at a mere $349 a piece. Idly, I wondered why anybody needed that. Wouldn’t the heat do horrible things to cosmetics? But then I spotted the explanation. “125°F is the GUARANTEED way to KILL BEDBUGS”, the page declared, trumpeting “The world’s first suitcase that kills bedbugs … as recommended by leading bedbug entomologists Richard Cooper and Jeff White.”

Welcome to one of the most peculiar twists of life in the US today – and one that is rarely discussed in public (except when entrepreneurs spot a business niche). Modern America is a country marred by growing economic, social and political fragmentation, but one small factor that furtively unites rich and poor alike – no matter how detached the lives of the elite become – is the humble bedbug, or Cimex lectularius. This is the parasite that feeds on human blood and lives in beds or other household furniture, and whose bites can produce itchy red welts and allergic reactions.

Just over five short decades ago it seemed bedbugs were destined to become a historical curiosity, on a par with buggy whips and dial telephones. When a host of new domestic pesticides went on the market in the postwar years, these were so effective in wiping out the creatures that “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” seemed merely a harmless children’s nursery rhyme.

But then nature – and social change – bit back. In the past 10 years, government officials and sanitation companies have reported an explosive rise in bedbug infestations across the US. According to the extermination company Terminix, the most heavily infected city right now is Cincinnati. (When this news recently broke, local officials were so horrified that they created a Bedbugs Task Force. It has been holding meetings this week.)

Philadelphia and Detroit sit in second and third place. Until recently, New York City topped the ranking, after reporting a dramatic increase in bedbugs during the past decade. Back in 2004, for example, City Hall was only receiving 500-odd complaints a year about infestations; three years ago that number had risen to 14,000, and almost one in 10 New Yorkers said they had been affected. This has since declined to about 9,000. But what is perhaps most striking about this trend is that infestations affect not just poor neighbourhoods but rich corners of Manhattan too.

Unsurprisingly, elite New Yorkers hate discussing this. Indeed, such is the sense of shame that when extermination companies visit smart districts such as the Upper East side, they often use unmarked vans and dress their workers as plumbers. The extermination companies have revealed that their services have – discreetly – been demanded in a host of upscale hotels and blocks. So much so that expensive buildings now routinely include legal clauses about bedbugs. And they control the movement of furniture and bedding so tightly, that when I lived in midtown Manhattan, I concluded it was easier to bring guns into the lobby of my building than a new mattress.

What explains this spreading epidemic? Some experts blame it on rising rates of travel. As rich (and poor) Americans hop around the world with non-heated suitcases, they keep spreading the creatures, particularly in the summer months. Others think the real issue is that the Environmental Protection Agency restricted sales of ultra-toxic chemicals couple of decades ago. A third explanation is that the bedbugs are now becoming far more resistant to chemicals. This is partly because Americans keep trying to kill them by using homegrown methods, or so the theory goes. For example, items such as “bug bombs” that are sold in shops often simply spread the critters into cracks and crevices, rather than completely eradicating them.

. . .

Either way, government officials and private sector businesses are trying to fight back. Earlier this summer, for example, researchers at Stony Brook University in Long Island announced that they had invented a new bedbug “trap”. Sprays and other chemical treatments are being developed. Extermination companies say demand for their services is rising (even though it can cost thousands of dollars to cleanse a house). And American Airlines is now selling those heated suitcases.

But while this may have reversed the tide in some places – such as New York – nobody expects the pest to actually disappear soon, or even decline to postwar levels. “Bedbugs are found to be as much, if not more, of a problem today than they were a few years ago … The epidemic is not waning,” a survey from a public-private partnership called Bugs Without Borders sternly reported earlier this year. It is a startling reminder, if one were needed, that there are some problems in life that cannot be easily cured through flashy technology – or, for that matter, by levels of wealth that would have also seemed unimaginable 50 years ago.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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