They only come out at night.

Photographer: David Cooper/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Invasion of the Bedbugs

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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A few days ago, I found myself standing naked in a friend’s backyard, having just thrown away most of my personal possessions, wondering where my life went wrong.

How, you may ask, did I arrive at such an amusing, pathetic state? The answer comes in one word that's sure to send a shiver down many spines: Bedbugs.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I stayed -- as I often do -- in an Airbnb rental. Unfortunately, this particular room happened to be infested with tiny little vampiric bugs that would emerge every night to feed upon my blood. I don’t want to blame the poor Airbnb host -- I might have brought the bugs myself, from a hotel I stayed at for one night. Bedbugs, being difficult to detect, are also difficult to trace. But whatever the source, the result was disaster.

The biggest problem with bedbugs isn't exactly the little crawlies themselves -- many people, including me, don’t react to the bites. The problem is getting rid of them. The bedbugs that are alive today are the hardy survivors of millennia of eradication efforts, and evolution has made them some of the toughest little critters on the planet. Even the mighty cockroach could learn a thing or two about survival from these guys.

Bedbugs are hatched from tiny translucent eggs, and begin life as tiny translucent nymphs, almost undetectable to the naked eye. As they feed on human blood, they grow -- an adult bug is a little dark-colored blood-sack about half the size of a pinky fingernail. They live in beds, in wooden furniture, in upholstery, in cracks in walls, in the walls themselves -- essentially, anywhere. They avoid sunlight and noise, emerging only when they smell the carbon dioxide exhaled by a human being in deep sleep. Then they emerge, silently and slowly, to feed.

Unless you are allergic to the bites, the only sign you will probably ever see of bedbug attacks is the poo spots they leave on your bed. Bedbug poo comes in the form of tiny circular brown or black stains on fabric. By their excrement shall you know them. If you see these little dots, call pest control.

Unfortunately, exterminators are limited in what they can do. The classes of pesticides that drove bedbugs to the brink of extinction between 1940 and 2000 -- DDT and organophosphates -- have been banned. Bedbugs have developed extreme resistance to the remaining pesticide classes, neonicotinoids and pyrethrins. Many exterminators will spray houses with “green” products like Cimi-Shield (which is based on soybean oil), but independent scientific studies have found these to be ineffective. A day after my Airbnb room was doused with Cimi-Shield, I saw a bedbug cheerfully trundling over the stuff, unperturbed -- and the attacks continued unabated.

The lack of chemical weapons limits humans to low-tech methods. Bedbug victims seal their possessions in plastic bags, bag up their mattresses in special containers, vacuum their houses, and pull their beds away from the walls. They often sprinkle their houses with diatomaceous earth, a kind of chalky dust that is supposed to gum up bedbugs’ bodies (but which can cause lung problems if inhaled for too long). Some spray their things obsessively with rubbing alcohol, which the bugs don’t like. Most people throw away a large percentage of their belongings -- hopefully, after bagging them securely.

But the most common low-tech solution is heat. Bedbugs are not very heat-resistant, and will die in temperatures of as low as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss clothes in the dryer on high for an hour, and all bedbugs will be gone. Some exterminators use heat treatment to combat infestations. Some companies sell portable heaters that allow you to cook your possessions after traveling to ensure that you don’t bring any bugs into your home. I used one of these -- along with obsessive drying, dry-cleaning and strict quarantine procedures -- to make sure I didn’t transport the bugs from my Airbnb rental to my next place (this is why I ended up standing around naked in the yard).

Given how hard it is to get rid of the bugs, it’s small wonder that the bugs are reaching epidemic proportions. Infestations dropped almost to zero in the 20th century, but have been steadily rising since 2001. Bedbug panic spiked in late 2010 and has remained high ever since:

With the increase in travel, the bugs have spread from metropolitan areas to all corners of the U.S. and the world. The poor, not being able to afford the expensive extermination procedures, are the worst hit, but the rich haven't been spared. Libraries and stores have been shuttered. The bugs are advancing, and civilization is losing the fight.

The best answer to this problem, in the short term, is public health. It’s time to stop treating bedbugs as an insect and start treating them more like a communicable disease. Every city should have a public bedbug registry, and failing to report an infestation should be a crime. Bedbug control and prevention procedures should be taught to every citizen. Hotels should be subject to random bedbug inspection using trained dogs. Public health and awareness have helped New York curb, though not eliminate, its bedbug problem.

In the longer term, this is a job for science and technology. New insecticides should be developed and fast-tracked through regulatory procedures. Startups should work on new anti-bedbug products -- perhaps self-sterilizing heated beds, or bedbug-sniffing chemical sensors. And the government should be funding research into futuristic methods of extermination, like intentionally introduced mutations that make bugs unable to produce female offspring.

In the war against the tiny vampires threatening our freedom of movement and our peace of mind, it’s us or them. Humanity must give no quarter. Or we all may one day share my unfortunate fate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net