The Unexpected Costs of Bedbugs

Recently the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky published Bugs Without Borders, a 2011 study of pest management professionals in the U.S. The results are scary.

  • 99 percent of responding pest management professionals had encountered bedbugs in the last year
  • More than 8 in 10 respondents said bedbug cases are increasing in the U.S.
  • Reports of bedbugs have become more common in daycare facilities, dorms, nursing facilities, movie theaters, and on public transportation

While they were almost nonexistent just a few decades ago, these tiny little blood suckers are making a comeback in a big way – one that might take a serious toll on your life. Get an infestation in your home and those bedbugs can wreak havoc on your finances, health, and sanity.

Initial extermination costs

Usually when you find pests in your home, a can of bug spray can kill every insect in sight. But the cheap and easy method doesn’t work with bedbugs. Most commercially sold bug sprays aren’t designed for bedbugs. To make matters worse, bedbugs have an increasing resistance to chemicals, so what worked in the past might not work in the future.

Most experts recommend professional extermination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a costly mix of chemical and nonchemical treatment:

CDC and EPA promote integrated pest management (IPM) for bedbug control. IPM is an effective pest control method that uses information on the life cycle of the pest and incorporates nonchemical and chemical methods. Nonchemical methods to effectively control bedbugs include heating infested rooms to 118°F (48°C) for 1 hour or cooling rooms to 3°F (-16°C) for 1 hour by professional applicators; encasing mattresses and box springs with bedbug-excluding covers; and vacuuming, steaming, laundering, and disposing of infested items. Any effective control measure for bedbugs requires support from all residents in affected buildings and ongoing monitoring for infestation from other housing units. Often, multiple inspections and treatments are needed to eradicate bedbugs.

This method will work, but could cost thousands of dollars. Jeff Eisenberg, author of “The Bed Bug Survival Guide,” recently told Time that a knowledgeable exterminator can cost at least $400 or $500 per room.

Future prevention costs

Spending serious cash on extermination isn’t always the end of a bedbug problem. Bedbugs nest inside your mattress, pillows, sofa, curtains, clothing, suitcases, and even behind electrical switch plates and in drawers. If one female survives the treatment, the National Pest Management Association says she could lay up to 540 eggs in her lifetime – starting the cycle all over again. That is why many exterminators and experts recommend either treating your soft furniture and clothing or throwing infested items away.

Disposal is costly. My mom runs a small apartment complex that has had bedbug problems off and on for the last year. A few months ago one tenant found bedbugs in his apartment. The apartment was treated but he still felt like bugs were crawling all over him at night, so he tossed everything. All told, he spent more than $4,000 replacing his mattress, linens, sofa, and clothing.

If you choose to keep your stuff, you’ll still need to shell out more cash for treatment. For example, anything that can fit in a washing machine will need to be washed and dried on high heat and then placed inside large plastic bags until you’re sure the bedbugs are gone from your home. Your mattress must be sealed up in a special case. According to Eisenberg, only two manufacturers make effective mattress encasements: Mattress Safe and Protect-a-Bed. Mattress Safe cases run from $79.95 to $128.95 depending on the size of the bed. Protect-a-Bed cases cost $80.99 to $134.99.

Health risks

If bedbugs have an upside, it is that they don’t transmit disease and typically don’t pose a medical threat. In most cases people experienced itchy bite marks that could be treated with over-the-counter creams and antihistamine pills. But there is still a small risk of developing some medical problems that could require treatment.

The CDC warns that excessively scratching the bites can cause a secondary skin infection. Some people also develop an allergic reaction to the bites and have to seek medical treatment. It’s rare, but these allergic reactions can be severe.

The treatments can also lead to health problems. Between 2003 and 2010, the CDC found at least 111 cases of people who got sick from insecticides used to treat bedbugs. There was one reported death from excessive insecticide use, a 65-year-old woman in North Carolina with a history of health problems. All other reported cases were mild in nature.

Emotional toll

Then there is the emotional toll. Even though cases have been reported across the country, there is still a stigma attached to bedbugs. People discover they have them and get embarrassed, worrying that neighbors will think their homes are unclean. Take my mother’s apartment complex, for example. The few tenants who have fallen victim to these bugs are terrified the neighbors will find out.

Even if you don’t have neighbors to worry about, bedbugs can still take an emotional toll on your life. Many people have trouble sleeping once they know their home is infested. The Columbus Dispatch recently interviewed Rod Bodwalk, who has had trouble with bedbugs in his apartment. Bodwalk threw away his mattress and ripped up the carpet. He sleeps in a sleeping bag and stays up at night to catch the bugs on a piece of duct tape. Bodwalk told the Columbus Dispatch:

“You can’t imagine after working all day and then not being able to go to sleep. They would wake me up every night between 2:30 and 4. I’d feel them crawling over me and reached over and get the duct tape and smash them.”

Once the bugs are finally gone, some people suffer from anxiety and develop a fear that they’ll catch them again. Last year after discovering bedbugs in her New York apartment, my friend moved, leaving all of her stuff in a dumpster. To this day she won’t come into her apartment without inspecting her clothes for bedbugs first. She’s terrified she picked them up on the subway. She has even had a few nightmares that bedbugs are crawling on her in her sleep.

Bedbugs spread quickly. You can pick them up in a public place and carry them home with you. The CDC says bedbugs can travel more than 100 feet in a night to find a new home. But there are still things you can do to prevent or stop the spread of bedbugs. The National Pest Management Association’s site, Pest World.org, has a list of everyday prevention methods. They include:

  • Vacuuming out suitcases before bringing them in the house
  • Regularly inspecting your sheets for blood spots
  • Storing your suitcase in a plastic bag while on vacation
  • Using a flashlight to inspect any room you spend time in
  • Inspecting secondhand furniture for infestation before bringing it home
  • Inspecting pet beds and crates on a regular basis

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Comments & discussion

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  • James Hazelton

    I’m surprised that I can contribute another comment so soon to these ‘Money Talks’ reports. Unfortunately I have some first hand knowledge and thankfully no first hand personal experience with bedbugs. I am a retiree and have lived in a seven story senior apartment building for nearly four years, since I was forced to retire due to illness. There was no bedbug problem that I was aware of for the first year. Then suddenly the problem, bedbug infestations in individual apartments, began and began to spread beyond management’s efforts at economy controls.

    Perhaps I should mention that I was a working horticulturist for 50 years and have contested with exterior pests the entire time with varying degrees of success, but I also learned something about interior pests along the way. The current U.S. invasion is alleged to have begun in hotels who catered to international guests from countries where the bedbug problem was and remains endemic – and/ or from visitors to those countries from the U.S. who unwittingly transport them back home.

    Locally, management of my rental apartment building decided to address budbugs on the cheap. The pest control company who couldn’t effectively control cockroaches first attempted to use the same chemicals that failed to kill cockroaches! The bedbugs spread. The second pest control company actually had a ‘professional’ (it said so on the machine) wheeled auxiliary heater that plugged into an apartment outlet. The inadequate heat treatment combined with unknown chemicals was equally unsuccessful. The budbugs continued to spread, but management continued to save $.

    While I don’t believe I have a dirt phobia, I will not use furniture what is obviously filthy. I was one of the few residents who pointed to lobby and lounge upholstered furniture as permanent harborages. The exact furniture that residents who had and have infestations, and their friends continue to use. DUH!

    A commercial pest control company was finally hired who specialize in treating for bedbugs in hotels and motels. They have a massive but super quiet generator mounted on a dual axle trailer, unmarked except for the company name but no purpose. They use four special heaters plus several fans all powered by their generator in a one bedroom apartment for four hours or more. At least one of these self-contained units, and sometimes two, were on the property daily for several weeks before any sort of control was achieved. Management helped the effort by making mattress covers available, one per resident for free there was a very small charge for additional covers. Note; I said control, not exterminate. Man can exterminate species such as Polar Bears far easier the any simple bug.

    The current pest control company still returns for a day every two or three weeks to treat mostly the same apartments. Those residents refuse to run clothing and bedding through a drier and even wear potentially infected clothing while waiting to reenter their treated apartments. Heaven forbid they think of cleaning their car interiors.

    Net result; the ‘carriers’ will continue to persist, move or die, their belongings will be trashed, be moved, or be dispersed along with another generation of six legged vermin.

    Bedbugs like cockroaches are not going away any time soon until effective and cost effective controls become available.