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Indiana University

Monroe County’s bedbug problem is far from over, experts and survey agree

February 8, 2012
Bloomington, Indiana --

By Christy Mullins

MORE: Read the MCCSC bedbug draft plan and find more info about bedbugs and a Q&A with IU entomology professor and bedbug expert Marc Lame.

On the southwest side of Bloomington is a house that is so infested with bedbugs, the 85-year-old woman who lives there is anemic from their bites, people assisting her say.

Black streaks of bedbug feces descend like mold from every wall and dot every newspaper she has collected inside. Even the mail outside has bedbugs crawling on it. So does the front door. Her furniture and counter tops are encrusted with black stains. Bedbugs jump from the couch to her coat, and she brushes them off like flies, if she has any reaction at all.

The woman would not be interviewed for this story, but bedbug professionals across Monroe County have visited the house and they all say the same thing. It is the worst case of infestation they’ve seen in the area, maybe ever.

“It is tragically bad,” said Carol Cobine, whose professional bedbug sniffing dog has detected millions of bugs and eggs in the woman’s house in Broadview.

“I can’t overstate how bad it is. ... Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, every item in this woman’s house has evidence of bedbug feces. I am just, literally, not kidding. In the kitchen. On the curtains. The sad part is, this woman has no money for remediation.”

It will cost $8,300 for a pest control company out of Evansville to fumigate the house, which requires pitching a tent over the entire property for two days and gassing the bugs out.

A pest control company in Indianapolis was willing to heat-treat the house for less money, but on arrival, Cobine said, they turned down the work.

A local ministry has set up a donation fund for the woman, who is on a fixed income, to help pay for the fumigation treatment. Donations can be made to Monroe County United Ministries, 827 W. 14th Court, Bloomington, IN 47404.

Problem hasn’t gone away

Unfortunately, Cobine said, the Broadview house is not the only home infested with bedbugs in Monroe County.

Bedbug experts, exterminators and health officials say the bedbugs that crept into Bloomington a few years ago have not gone away or even dwindled. Publicity has, for the most part, gone away, says Marc Lame, an entomologist at Indiana University, but the problem still exists.

“It’s worse, but people are getting used to it, just like we predicted they would,” said Lame, one of a few bedbug experts in the state. Bedbugs are considered a public health pest, but not a public health risk, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s good, because people aren’t panicking over something they really didn’t need to panic over in the first place, but it’s bad in that community leaders have become complacent.”

Nearly half of the pest control providers in Monroe County who have taken the county health department’s online bedbug survey reported treating more than 50 homes and businesses in the past year for bedbugs.

Ten companies took the survey. They all reported finding bedbugs, dead or alive, cast skins, fecal stains and blood smears. About 78 percent of pest control companies reported finding bedbug eggs, and 22 percent found colonies of bedbugs that were resistant to pesticides.

On average, it takes area pest control companies two tries to successfully treat a house or apartment with heat, chemical or combination treatments, according to the survey.

No pest control company reported a reduced bedbug problem in the area. Companies overall said bedbugs are everywhere, and there is no area in Monroe County that is more infested with bedbugs than any other. The problem is widespread.

Bedbug reports

Residents and local businesses also are taking the county’s bedbug survey launched online last fall. It can be viewed at

Of the 14 businesses that have taken the survey, more than half reported bedbug problems, and only 23 percent of those businesses reported using professional pest control companies.

Sixty-nine percent of businesses reported they thought the bedbug problems within their organizations were increasing, and about half reported negative publicity has been an issue.

Of the 79 residents in Monroe County who have taken the survey, 36 percent reported bedbug problems in their homes. The majority of those residents were homeowners, not renters.

They reported taking steps to reverse the bedbug problems by vacuuming, removing clutter, educating themselves about bedbugs and setting up professional inspections, in that order.

When people check for bedbugs, they check the mattress first, the box spring second, and the bed frames and head boards third, according to the survey. Less than 10 percent of people think to check switchplate covers, lamps, alarm clocks and smoke detectors. About 8 percent of people who took the survey said they did not check for bedbugs at all.

Cobine, co-owner of The Dog Knows Detection, said she has made around 200 house calls in Monroe County in the past year by word-of-mouth only. Her beagle, Dixie, found bedbugs at all but two of them. The majority are rental homes where people rotate in and out each year, she said, and the severity of each infestation varied.

“The last student I went to see, he couldn’t see the bugs, and he didn’t have a mature infestation, but somehow he’d gotten eggs and (the bugs) had fed on him,” she said. “I didn’t see feces, I didn’t see any of the evidence you read about online, like little brown stains. But there were fully engorged nits, about the size of a scarlet teardrop.”

Cobine, her dog and her husband also travel Indiana each weekend detecting bedbugs in housing complexes and large apartment buildings in Indianapolis, South Bend, Fort Wayne and Gary. The Cobines keep real bedbugs in vials at their house to keep the dog trained on how they smell.

“I can’t speak authoritatively,” Cobine said. “I can just say we’re busier, and it seems like there’s less publicity but actually more infestation across the board.”

Awareness needed

Lame says not enough is being done on the local level to combat bedbugs.

He thinks there should be more outreach and less complacency. Something as simple as putting signs on dumpsters, he said.

“Dumpster diving is a sport here in Bloomington at the end of every semester. That’s a prime way for bedbugs to spread.”

Lame said health care providers should have information about bedbugs available to patients in their lobbies and waiting rooms. And he believes in having a task force that would focus on awareness, surveillance and prevention. Lame trained rental inspectors last May on bedbug identification, biology, detection and control, but he hasn’t hosted a training session like it since.

Last January, a swarm of concerned parents met at Arlington Heights Elementary School, where bedbugs had been detected. Lame and school officials talked about bedbug prevention and detection at home, and by that spring the school corporation had drafted a protocol for handling bedbugs at school.

The protocol spells out how the buildings need to deal with the issues of bedbugs when they arise. Principals, nurses, health aides and social workers all are familiar with the protocol and its application, MCCSC planning director John Carter said.

It involves discreetly removing children from classrooms if bedbugs are found on their belongings, removing and collecting the bugs for evidence, informing parents and sending home bedbug information, and sanitizing students’ clothing and school supplies if they repeatedly come to school with bedbugs.

It also suggests that students with repeated bedbug issues bring a fresh change of clothes to school and allow a health aide or custodian to wash the clothes they were wearing and dry them for at least 30 minutes at more than 120 degrees, to kill any bugs.

“I can say the protocol is successful, since we do not receive any panic-type phone calls,” Carter said. “The calls are matter-of-fact.”

Around 10 bedbugs have been detected at Monroe County schools in the past year, including one sighting last month, according to the schools’ records. There have been no infestations.

The bugs typically “hitch a ride” with students and sometimes with visitors to the building, Carter said. Once bedbugs are suspected, the school’s energy and environmental technicians catch and identify the bugs as bedbugs and monitor the area for one or two days overnight with dry ice coolers that are designed to attract and trap the bugs.

“The problems in the schools were resolved since the school contacted the home and informed parents that we caught a bug on their student,” Carter said.

IU, hospital have procedures in place

Indiana University has seen 13 “light incidents” on campus in the past year, said Mike Jenson, the university’s director of environmental, health and safety management.

He said the sightings have been in individual units of campus housing complexes, and like Monroe County schools, the university has a system for reporting, monitoring and treating the bugs, which is distributed to all residents when they move in.

“Although this is a national issue, we haven’t seen any large- or medium-scale problems over the past year, and the number of issues that we have had is pretty low given the large number of residents and relatively transient population that we serve,” Jenson said.

Bedbugs were discovered twice at IU’s Wells Library in September and October 2010, and were related to an employee’s cluttered cubicle space in the library. Bedbugs continue to crop up at IU Health Bloomington Hospital, where they were first reported in November 2010, hospital spokeswoman Amanda Roach said.

Because the hospital sees thousands of patients each year, “we are not immune to the bedbug problem in Bloomington,” she said. “We do find patients and visitors unknowingly bringing bedbugs into the facility.”

Roach said the hospital has a bedbug policy and protocol, and both the hospital’s clinical staff and environmental services team have been educated on how to kill bedbugs.

“We know that heat kills bedbugs, so we have a mobile heating unit that can be taken to the unit where the bedbug was discovered and the patient’s or visitor’s belongings can be heat-treated there immediately.”

Copyright: 2012