This story originally aired Dateline NBC on April 20, 2008.
BROOKLYN — After decades in obscurity, bedbugs have returned to the United States to take up residence in a place where they can live long-term, rent-free and have all the food they need -- in mattresses all over the country.
"I would say it's spinning out of control," says veteran entomologist Rick Cooper.
Cooper hadn't even seen a live bedbug until 1999. Since then, treating them has become almost a full time job for his company, Cooper Pest Management in northern New Jersey. His colleague Jeff White says these small, blood-sucking pests sneak out during the night, feed, and then retreat. Sometimes the only evidence they leave behind are hideous welts running up arms and legs.
"I've had people just be completely, completely upset about it, I mean, literally hysterical," says White.
The first time Dateline came face to face with a bedbug was in 1996, when we investigated the mattress business -- specifically, reconditioned mattresses that are supposed to be stripped and sterilized, re-covered and sold for less than what you'd pay for a new one.
Back then, we bought nine mattresses and opened them up. What we found was shocking.
Beneath new covers, filthy old materials were contaminated with urine, fecal matter and dangerous fungi, all of which can seep out through the cover over time. We also found a dead bedbug with its eggs.
With the Orkin pest control company now reporting bedbug infestations in all 50 states, we decided to take another look at reconditioned mattresses to see if the companies that produce and sell them are doing a better job than they were 11 years ago.
Right away we found that some things have changed for the better.
In 1996, 19 states had laws in place regulating the sale of reconditioned mattresses. This year that number is up to 26. We started our investigation in New York, where state law requires them to be labeled clearly with yellow tags marked "used materials." Not disclosing that information is also against federal law.
Saying "Have no fear, lay down," a salesman in 1996 tried to sell us rebuilt mattresses as if they were new.
But this year was a different story.
"These are the refurbished ones right here," said one salesperson.
In the small Mom and Pop stores in low income communities where most of these mattresses are sold, clerks readily told us the mattresses were rebuilt.
Dateline saw one full size set selling for $49.99, compared to new sets which start around two hundred dollars.
"If it has a yellow ticket it's refurbished," said the salesperson. "We don't tell our customers it's brand new if it's not. We don't lie to our customers."
The yellow tags also clearly say the mattresses are sterilized. In shops and factories, we were told they were clean.
"They clean them and fumigate them," said one salesperson.
Owner Francisco Chavez told us, "We clean, we’ve got to spray, we spray with alcohol, not just regular alcohol, special alcohol."
Reconditioned mattresses begin their journey once they're thrown out to sidewalks or garbage heaps. At dawn, in many American cities, men with vans come out and cart them off to factories, where we were told they sell for five dollars a piece.
We asked entomologist Rick Cooper to ride along with us as we documented what happens to them. Here in Brooklyn, we found these mattresses tossed to the curb. Right away Cooper found a bedbug, fat from a recent feeding.
"Now this has a fresh blood meal in it you can see," said Cooper.
Cooper says adult bedbugs are easy to spot, but eggs or brand new hatchlings are nearly imperceptible.
"All those little pearly white things are eggs, they're bedbug eggs," he pointed out. "They're a millimeter in size and they're clear. Think about a period on a piece of paper, but make it translucent. And put that inside the expanse of a mattress."
His colleague Jeff White added, "It would be very difficult to detect, you're talking about worse than a needle in a haystack."
As for those bedbug infested mattresses we found, we came back the next day at dawn to check on them.
Two were gone. We watched a man pick up the remaining one and load it into this white van.
So we followed the van. He picked up more mattresses. That's the one with bedbugs up on the top.
By 11:00 a.m., there were nine mattresses stacked in the van and more inside -- 22 in all.
He delivered them to a company we knew all too well. In fact, in 1996 the company was called Quisqueya mattress and had sold us several contaminated rebuilt mattresses.
Eleven years later, it's now called Brooklyn Sleep Products, and, it appears, business is booming. There's a fleet of delivery trucks and a huge factory and salesroom.
We watched as the bedbugs on that mattress hitched a ride in. What would Brooklyn Sleep Products do to make sure the bugs didn't come back out on a newly rebuilt mattress?
We went in with hidden cameras, and found men making rebuilt mattresses and spraying them here and there with a common household cleaner.
The owner told our undercover shopper his workers use disinfectants to prevent bedbugs, but he said there are no guarantees.
"If you don't spray, [there] can be bedbugs," said one worker who was spraying. "We've got to do it."
We asked him, "Do these have bedbugs?"
The worker answered "I can't say you yes or no. Because it's possible maybe the bedbug don't die with the, some bedbugs don't die."
Rick Cooper agreed. He says sprays like the ones used here kill bedbugs only on direct contact -- and they don't kill bedbug eggs.
Brooklyn Sleep Products also makes new mattresses. We saw stacks of them leaning up against newly rebuilt and old mattresses. It's a bad idea, says Rick Cooper.
"If one mattress is in contact with another, and there are bugs on it. Then there's a very strong likelihood that they're going to move to the adjacent one."
There were mattresses everywhere. How would we possibly determine if some had bedbugs? This seemed like an undertaking that might require dogged determination.
Nudey is one of a handful of dogs Pepe Peruyero has trained to detect bedbugs.
"She's got a really, really good nose," he says. "Eight pounds. You know no one would ever suspect that this is a detection dog."
A former DEA agent and police dog handler, Pepe runs J&K K-9 Academy in northern Florida where he's trained dozens of dogs to find drugs and pests.
His star student is Gidget, a beagle mix rescued from a shelter.
"Gidget is our machine," says Pepe. "Gidget is like the old gunny sergeant in the military. She just absolutely loves to work."
Rick Cooper sometimes turns to Pepe's dogs for help finding bugs, so we flew him, his daughter who works with him, and the dogs to New York to see if they could find live bedbugs in mattresses.
"Find your bees," Pepe told his dog. It's the dog's signal to start sniffing.
Pepe says it's easy to see when the dogs have detected the scent of a live bedbug.
"All of a sudden that head snaps. The tail may start to wag a little bit stronger and then of course the alert, the physical alert, of-- of scratching," he said. "Scratching right at the at the point where the odor is coming out of."
Sometimes, to indicate a bedbug, they just sit down. If the dogs are to be believed, plenty of these old mattresses were infested with bedbugs.
What about the newly rebuilt mattresses? We took the dogs to stores and factories and with some help from them, chose dozens of mattresses to buy and open up.
Would we discover bedbugs? And what else would we find?
When trainer Pepe Peruyero and his detection dogs hit the Big Apple and started touring the bedding factories and stores of Brooklyn, he was struck by one thing right away.
"I could not believe how many mattresses are moved in just one of those stores on a daily basis. It was amazing."
The factories we visited in Florida, California and New York were bustling. Rebuilt bedding is a high-profit business not many people even realize exists.
"They might pay a collector $5 per product," says bedding industry consultant Gordon Demant. "They might sell that product to the consumer for $50. And all they've done in many instances is to put a new cover on it."
Refurbished mattresses are bought in bulk by lower-end hotels, shelters, and some school dorms. Demant says though they fill a real need in low income neighborhoods, unsuspecting consumers don't realize the risks.
"They believe that they're getting a product which is maybe of lower quality, but not a product which could subject them to significant health problems."
We bought our first batch in New York -- 11 mattresses and box springs -- from two different stores, for about $40 each.
We brought them to Cooper Pest Management where bedbug experts Rick Cooper and Jeff White offered to help us examine them.
The first mattress looked clean and fresh and as good as new on the outside.
What we found on the inside gave new meaning to the term dirt cheap.
"Oh my gosh, look at this," said Dateline correspondent Victoria Corderi, seeing cigarette burns, dust and huge unsightly stains.
"This is exactly like what I saw ten years ago. It's unbelievable."
Some of the mattresses looked ok inside. Others looked disgusting.
The fifth mattress we opened was filled with layers of old mattress covers, foam and even two long stuffed cardboard tubes.
Of more concern to Rick and Jeff was how the tops of old mattresses were layered one over the other under the cover, each one a possible carrier of bedbugs.
We asked Rick Cooper, "So it's like layer after layer of opportunity from different beds?"
Cooper said, "Right. Any one of these layers that has bugs associated with it is going to be a route of introduction of bugs into the mattress itself."
Jeff pointed out, "There's black stains all along the piping of that old one."
These dark marks -- called fecal spotting – are signs that bedbugs had been there, digested a blood meal and excreted it right out.
All along the border of the mattress was clear evidence, says Jeff, that the mattress layer had once had a significant infestation. Then there was more proof.
"I have a bedbug," said Jeff.
There was a dead bedbug amid the filth.
"So the fact that it's disgusting is not enough," said our correspondent. "The fact that it could also have bedbugs?"
"That's what would bother me," said Jeff.
As we went through the other mattresses, we found more of the tell-tale stains and plenty of grime but no more bedbugs, dead or alive.
We returned to Brooklyn Sleep Products and bought ten more mattresses -- twins and full-sized -- for an average of $40 each.
"Find your bees," Jeff instructed Gidget, the bedbug sniffing beagle, who worked on one end while Rick and Jeff worked on the other.
"I got a bug," Jeff exclaimed.
We found a live bedbug and an unhatched egg.
Rick, pointing at the mattress, said "This spot right here and this spot right here, these two sort of reddish spots are eye spots. That tells us that we have a growing embryo inside this egg."
There was a little hatchling, translucent and small enough to squeeze through the stitch holes in the mattress seams. It came from a growing family.
"Probably, there was more there if we had looked harder," said Rick.
When we brought Gidget around to that end of the mattress, she agreed.
"That's a good girl!"
In our investigation in 1996, Dr. Philip Tierno, Director of Clinical Microbiology at New York University, had tested our mattresses and was shocked at the levels of fungi and bacteria he found, pointing out "We had eclubziella growing."
So this year we sent him new samples from the factories we visited in Florida, California and New York.
"Ten years ago, we found similar fungi," said Dr. Tierno. "In one of these cases, the fungi here were far in excess of what we found 10 years ago."
All of the samples were contaminated -- including those from mattresses made in California, which has strict laws and enforcement. The testing revealed traces of urine, fecal matter, at least seven different fungi, most of which are potentially harmful to children, the elderly, anyone with a compromised immune system.
We asked Dr. Tierno, "Did you think maybe in the ensuing years that something would be done, that maybe these reconditioned mattresses might be in better shape?"
"No," he said. "I considered that in 10 years they would be eliminated from society."
The dirtiest mattresses we found came from the Brooklyn Sleep Products factory -- the factory that sold us the mattress containing live bedbugs.
Eleven years ago, we asked owner Francisco Chavez how he cleaned the reconditioned mattresses.
We went back again recently with the results of our latest investigation.
He wasn't surprised, and he showed us boxes of Sterifab, the disinfectant he uses. We showed him our video of the so-called sterilized mattresses we bought from him.
We asked him, "There was urine, fecal matter, fungi, bacteria ... What do you think about this?"
"That says used material," Chavez said. "We clean, we sterilize it."
When Dateline objected that it doesn't say there could be bedbugs, Chavez replied "Go to the city if you have a complaint."
We did go see what New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs had to say. Director Jonathan Mintz blames the state for ignoring the issue.
"They haven't passed the rules telling dealers how they have to sanitize their mattresses."
He says 10 years ago the state passed a law requiring sterilization of reconditioned bedding but then never bothered to pass regulations on how to do that.
"The retailers are out there using their own best judgment rather than following state rules," Mintz said.
Still, his department came out against a recent proposed ban on rebuilt mattresses, saying it penalized the poor.
"For a lot of people used mattresses are the right economic choice for them. And you have to be very careful before you take that product away from them."
Dateline asked whether just because a family is poor they had to settle for a mattress full of fecal matter, bacteria and fungi.
"Nobody would ever knowingly buy a contaminated mattress," said Mintz. "That's not a rational choice."
We asked him, "How much contamination is enough or how many bedbugs do you need to do something?"
"That's the right question. And the state needs to answer it," said Mintz.
The New York Department of State declined our request for an interview but did e-mail us a statement saying "It takes information about improper activity on the part of licensees very seriously ... and that the department has no outstanding complaints but now plans a full investigation given our findings ... And is reviewing the statute and the need for stronger regulations."
This time around, every reconditioned mattress we tested was contaminated, but only one had live bedbugs.
Dateline asked Jeff White, "Are we overstating the problem here? We only found one live bedbug and some eggs."
White replied, "If I have a chance of buying a mattress and there is a 5% chance that it's infested with bedbugs, that's too high for me."
His colleague Rick Cooper agrees.
"I don't so much care whether it's five percent, 10 percent, or 30 percent infestation rate," says Cooper. "There's not supposed to be live bugs inside of the mattress when you buy it."
In the end, Rick Cooper says that with bedbugs creeping slowly to a bed near you, buying a reconditioned mattress can be anything but a good deal.
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