The federal government is waking up to what has become a growing nightmare in many parts of the country — a bedbug outbreak.
The tiny reddish-brown insects, last seen in great numbers before World War II, are on the rebound. They have infested college dormitories, hospital wings, homeless shelters and swanky hotels from New York City to Chicago to Washington.
They live in the crevices and folds of mattresses, sofas and sheets. Then, most often before dawn, they emerge to feed on human blood.
Faced with rising numbers of complaints to city information lines and increasingly frustrated landlords, hotel chains and housing authorities, the Environmental Protection Agency hosted its first-ever bedbug summit Tuesday.
Put on by an EPA's federal advisory committee, the two-day conference which drew about 300 participants to the Sheraton Crystal City Hotel in Arlington, Va., will provide the agency with advice and recommendations.
The Sheraton has had no reported bedbug problems, according to a popular online registry, so at least conference participants will be sleeping tight.
"The problem seems to be increasing and it could definitely be worse in densely populated areas like cities, although it can be a problem for anyone," said Lois Rossi, director of the registration division in the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs.
And the EPA is not alone in trying to deal with the problem. An aide to Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., says he plans to reintroduce legislation next week to expand grant programs to help public housing authorities deal with infestations
Many of the programs cover cockroaches and rodents, but not bedbugs. The bill will be called the Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite Act.
"It was clear something needed to be done," said Saul Hernandez, Butterfield's legislative assistant.
In 2002, EPA classified bedbugs as a public health pest.
But there are few chemicals on the market approved for use on mattresses that are effective at controlling bedbug infestations. The appleseed-sized critters have also developed a resistance to some of the chemicals on the market.
Few chemicals to stop them
The EPA, out of concern for the environment and the effects on public health, has pulled many of the chemicals that were most effective in eradicating the bugs from the U.S. over the last 50 years — such as DDT — off of shelves.
Increasing international travel has also increased the chances for the bugs to hitchhike from developing countries which never eradicated them completely.
"This is a worldwide resurgence," said Dini Miller, an entomologist and bedbug expert at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, who until 2001 only saw bedbugs on microscope slides dating from the 1950s. Now she gets calls several times a day from people who are often at their wits end dealing with the problem.
"I can't tell you how many people have spent the night in their bath tubs because they are so freaked out by bedbugs," Miller said. "I get these people over the phone that have lost their marbles."
Bedbugs are not known to transmit any diseases. But their bites can cause infections and allergic reactions in some people. The insects release an anticoagulant to get blood flowing, and they also excrete a numbing agent so their bites don't often stir a victim's slumber.
Those often hardest hit are the urban poor, Miller said. These are people who cannot afford to throw out all their belongings or take the sanitation measures necessary to rid them of the problem. Extermination can cost between $400-$900.
Because the registration of new pesticides takes so long, one thing the EPA could do is to approve some pesticides for emergency use, Miller said.
Another tactic would be to test pesticides that are allowed to be used by farmers to control bedbugs to see if they are safe in household settings.
The pesticide management industry will be pushing for federal funding for research into alternative solutions, such as heating, freezing or steaming the bugs out of bedrooms.
"We need to have better tools," said Greg Baumann, a senior scientist at the National Pest Management Association. "We need EPA to consider all the options for us."