North Carolina bedbugs

September 16th, 2010

Bedbugs come crawling in the Carolinas

In the latest sign that bedbugs are making a big comeback, officials at Catawba College in Salisbury closed nearly half of the school’s dormitories on Wednesday so exterminators could attack a growing infestation.

Nearly wiped out four decades ago, the parasitic pests are again infesting homes and businesses across the Carolinas and the rest of the country, exterminators and health experts say.

“The problem is much more widespread than people realize,” said Andrew Rogers, bedbug treatment manager for Indian Trail-based Killingsworth Environmental.

“A few years ago, exterminators’ biggest business was termites. In a few years, it will be bedbugs.”

In 2006, Rogers’ company had no service calls for bedbugs. On Wednesday, Rogers was in Asheville, doing battle with the bugs – the company’s 198th call this year.

While exterminators spent eight hours Wednesday in about a half-dozen residence halls at Catawba College, their counterparts in Winston-Salem were doing the same thing at Wake Forest University. Officials at both schools say students returning to campus probably brought the bugs with them.

And it’s not just a Carolinas problem.

In recent weeks, bedbugs have become a national story, with infestations reported in government offices across the United States, including IRS buildings in Philadelphia and outside Cincinnati.

“While bedbugs were nearly eradicated in the United States, they continued to exist elsewhere in the world,” said Jung Kim, bedbug specialist with the N.C. Division of Environmental Health in Raleigh. “The increase in international travel has brought the bugs back to the United States.”

In addition, bedbugs lost their mortal enemy about 40 years ago. Exterminators used DDT in the 1950s and 1960s against the bugs, but the EPA outlawed DDT use because it is a cancer-causing agent.

Bedbugs don’t spread diseases, but their bite causes itching and scabs. Infections sometimes result from scratching the bite marks.

Bedbugs are spread by luggage and clothing. Kim said they can be found anywhere in the house but prefer to hide in bedding.

“They’ll bite pets, but they prefer humans,” he said.

They leave a telltale trail of fecal material, but Kim said most people attribute the bites and black specks to other causes.

‘Trying to be proactive’

In Salisbury, Catawba College students who live in Abernethy Village were told to leave their dormitory rooms Wednesday morning and take all their clothing and bedding to be washed. About 120 of the school’s 1,000 students were affected. They were to be allowed back in the rooms Wednesday night.

“We are trying to be proactive,” said Tonia Black-Gold, spokeswoman for Catawba College. “We initially had four complaints, but the number has grown this week.”

Catawba officials said they received a few complaints last week and increased pest management control efforts. But they said the problem grew rapidly.

“More residents complained, and the exterminators found evidence of bedbugs in the common spaces of the residence halls,” Black-Gold said. “After several dozen cases, we decided to treat comprehensively all of the residence halls where we had reports.”

Students were told to wash clothes, bedding and towels. Pest management experts say it takes water of 120 degrees or hotter to kill the bugs.

Wake Forest officials this week hired a second pest control company after bedbug reports increased. University officials said they began receiving complaints from students when classes started in August. Those problems spread from the south side of campus to the north side in recent days.

Officials at two area schools, UNC Charlotte and Wingate University, said Wednesday they had not received reports of bedbug problems. But both schools said they are watching and waiting.

In homes and hotels

It’s not just a problem on campuses.

“We are called to get rid of bedbugs at a lot of hotels in the Charlotte area – the two-star hotels and the four-star hotels,” Rogers said. “The quality of the hotel doesn’t make any difference.”

They’re being found in Charlotte-area homes, too.

Augie Vizcarrondo, who lives in west Charlotte near the airport, bought his house four years ago and tries to keep it “spotless.” He was horrified to discover bedbugs in a guest bedroom last month.

“On the outer layer sheet I saw spots of blood, like someone was poked or something,” said Vizcarrondo, 52. He looked closer and found bugs.

“When I saw that, I got crazy. I didn’t know what to do.”

He fumigated his house with a kit from Wal-Mart and bought a vinyl mattress cover. He threw away all the bedding from that room. He hasn’t seen bedbugs since, but still feels violated.

“It’s an ugly feeling to know they were in your house,” he said.

Vizcarrondo submitted his experience through the Carolinas Public Insight Network, an Observer reader engagement project.

Inconvenient and expensive

For Catawba students, Wednesday’s battle with the bedbugs was inconvenient and expensive, but college officials promised to help.

“It’s kind of chaotic,” student Holly Steen told WCNC-TV, the Observer’s news partner. “It makes it kind of hard to function, with classes and everything.”

College officials said they are working with faculty members to be lenient with students because many of them have papers, exams and other assignments due in the next few days.

“The college is also providing funds for students to treat their fabric with high heat in dryers at area Laundromats,” Black-Gold said. Observer staff writer Ely Portillo and WCNC-TV contributed.

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