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A Southeast Baltimore boy developed a severe leg infection from
an untreated allergic reaction to a bite. A man from Baltimore’s
Hampden neighborhood threw out his possessions and fled his
apartment with only a bag of clothes and a handful of papers. A
Mount Vernon woman who struggled for months to rid her home of the
pests finally sought therapy to deal with the trauma.
A Southeast Baltimore boy developed a severe leg infection from an untreated allergic reaction to a bite. A man from Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood threw out his possessions and fled his apartment with only a bag of clothes and a handful of papers. A Mount Vernon woman who struggled for months to rid her home of the pests finally sought therapy to deal with the trauma.

Bedbugs were once a distantly remembered nuisance, the stuff of children’s rhymes and Depression-era tales of woe. But increasingly, the tiny pests have become nightmarish bedfellows for homeowners, apartment dwellers and travelers in the Baltimore area – and across the country.

“The problem is not just the bugs themselves but the reaction people have to them,” says Chris Merriam, a mayoral fellow who has been assigned to research the vermin for the city’s Health Department. “The things you have do to get rid of bedbugs are so intrusive. You can’t even come home and relax at night.”

Merriam, a graduate student in urban planning at Morgan State University, has spent several weeks now collecting stories of sleepless nights, panicked cleaning and intense itching. He is compiling data and anecdotes to help health officials develop a strategy to rid communities of the bugs.

“We know the only way to comprehensively deal with bedbugs is on a block-by-block level,” said Merriam, because the pests easily traverse walls separating Baltimore’s rowhouses. “How do we get neighbors talking to each other about this?”

Nearly eradicated in the United States after World War II, bedbugs have taken advantage of bans on effective pesticides to make a massive comeback in the past decade – and their numbers continue to swell. The bloodsucking insects have settled into apartment complexes, northern Baltimore County mansions and college dorms. They are equally happy to nest in a homeless shelter or a luxury hotel. Or anywhere else people gather and sleep.

In New York City, the number of bedbug citations recorded by the housing department has increased by nearly 6,000 percent since 2004. The pests made headlines there in recent weeks when infestations forced several stores, including branches of Victoria’s Secret and Hollister, to close briefly.

The New York Legislature has passed a bill requiring landlords to notify prospective tenants if a property has been infested.

Baltimore exterminators who handled a few dozen cases a couple of years ago say they now receive hundreds of calls each year. The city’s 311 call center logged nearly 70 complaints about the bugs last month, almost four times as many as they had received in June 2009.

City health officials have been inspecting homes, training housing and school maintenance staff and teaching community outreach workers about bedbugs for about a year and a half. Madeleine Shea, a deputy health commissioner, says Baltimore is among the first cities in the nation to craft a strategy to treat the bugs as a public health problem.

“With lead, the approach is to treat the problem house by house. The same is true with asthma. But that’s not the right approach for bedbugs,” she said. “Unless people can collaborate as a block or a neighborhood, we’re really throwing our money down the drain.”

The size and shape of an apple seed, the bedbug can hitch a ride on the sole of a shoe, sidle into a crack thinner than the edge of a credit card, reproduce rapidly – and survive for more than a year on a single sip of blood.

The insects pierce their victims’ skin with long, pointed mouthparts, inject a numbing agent and gorge on blood for as long as five minutes. They often sip from several spots in a row, like a diner progressing along a buffet. The bites swell into red, itchy bumps the size of a quarter.

Bedbugs are not known to carry disease or trigger health problems in most people. But that’s little consolation for those who find the pests maddeningly difficult to dislodge from their homes.

Gary Epstein’s bedbug ordeal began shortly after he moved into a Hampden rowhouse in 2008. The musician and web developer spotted tiny spatters of blood on his mattress and bedroom walls and then discovered his unwanted bedfellows.

“I still have nightmares about them,” said Epstein, now 32. “They generally came out between 3 and 5 (a.m.), so I would do whatever I could to stay up to 3 just so I could sleep through it.”

Fearful of spreading the pests, Epstein said he avoided dating, hanging out with friends and visiting his family. He washed and dried his clothes each morning before going to work and spent hours hunting and vacuuming up bugs.

After three visits from exterminators and months chastising his roommates to be more vigilant, Epstein ditched his computer, stereo, all his furniture and even his shoes. He moved into a new apartment with only a bag of freshly laundered clothes and a sheaf of important papers – which he promptly put in the freezer to kill any bedbug eggs.

“It was a huge relief to move out of there,” said Epstein. “But (having bedbugs) really changes the way you see things. It killed any interest I had in touring. I don’t want to sleep in some random person’s living room and pick them up again.”

Amy, a social worker who asked that her last name not be used, understands where he’s coming from. As she sits on the sofas of the families she visits, she fears she’ll pick up the bugs again.

Three years ago, her now-husband awoke in their Mount Vernon apartment to discover nearly 80 bites up and down his arms, she says. For months, the couple boiled their clothing and stored their belongings in plastic bags and bins.

Although an exterminator sprayed their apartment, the bugs kept coming, apparently sneaking in from another apartment.

“It was so terrible living out of plastic bags and bins and knowing that we were still going to be bitten by these blood-sucking vampire bugs every night,” Amy said. “They’re so insidious, they’re secretive and they won’t go away.”

Eventually, the couple threw away nearly all of their belongings and bought a single-family house.

Before moving in, they had a bedbug-sniffing dog brought down from New York to inspect it.

DDT nearly wiped the bugs out in the United States. But that pesticide and others have since been banned for health reasons, and the commercial products used to kill roaches and ants have little effect on the bloodsuckers.

Pest-control companies have developed a complicated arsenal of techniques to try to keep the bugs in check. Dogs have been trained to sniff out unseen bugs. Exterminators kill the insects with blasts of intense heat or cold, or by warming houses to temperatures fatal to the bugs, said Mark Harne, a district manager for Terminix.

“We either freeze ’em or cook ’em,” said Harne. Civilians, he advises, can “pop ’em” with the heat from a hair dryer.

Workers may kill the survivors with powders that slice the bugs’ feet, Harne said. He said ridding a home of an infestation can cost several hundred dollars and require several visits.

Michael Boeck, who supervises pest management for the Health Department, says the preparations for an extermination – vacuuming crevices, washing curtains, linens and clothing, encasing mattresses in plastic cases – are often as effective as some of the pesticides used.

Boeck urges residents to “sound the alarm” at the first sight of bedbugs, but to choose a pest control company carefully. Many chemical pesticides don’t kill the bugs, but can cause health problems in people, he said.

And – although it may be difficult to broach the subject – health officials recommend discussing the problem with neighbors.

“Pests don’t see a neatly defined house,” Boeck said. The bugs can easily penetrate the older walls that separate the city’s rowhouses, he said.

Michael O’Leary, deputy director of community initiatives for the Health Department’s healthy homes program, says a key part of fighting the bugs is reducing the stigma of having them.

“It’s going to take some attitudinal changes,” he said. “Bedbugs aren’t anyone’s fault.”

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