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Consumer Reports

Bedbugs are making a comeback across the United States | (KRT) This is going to make your skin crawl.

Bedbugs - those tenacious, bloodsucking little critters that once were so successfully eradicated from the United States that parents teased small children about them at bedtime - are making a comeback. A big, itchy, coast-to-coast comeback.

In New York, in one Queens apartment building, all residents had to throw out their mattresses and have their entire wardrobes doused in scalding water.

In Madison, Wis., dozens of homes were found to be swarming with the bugs.

In Washington, D.C., a posh Dupont Circle high-rise was so infested that residents called a special meeting.

In New Mexico, one hospital's supposedly sterile rooms were overrun.

At least 28 states - including Illinois - reported an influx of bedbugs in 2002. The bugs have shown up in homes, apartment buildings and even world-class luxury hotels. One entomologist called them "the new scourge of America," and Orkin Inc., the nation's second-largest pest-control company, has predicted a 25 to 30 percent increase in bedbug extermination jobs for the next four years.

"We've seen at least five times as many cases this year as we did two years ago, when bedbugs first started re-emerging," said Frank Meek, Orkin's national pest-control manager.

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The reasons for the recent return of the bedbug - or, Cimex lectularius to bug aficionados - appear to be twofold. First, an increase in international travel has brought the bugs, which often stow away in suitcases or clothing, to the United States from countries where bedbugs remain common. In addition, many of the pesticides that virtually eliminated the bugs from the United States in the last century no longer are in use because they have proven dangerous to humans.

"We just aren't using good enough pesticides anymore," said Mike English, an entomologist at New Mexico State University. "Basically, you have a whole generation of people who have only known bedbugs as characters in a charming bedtime rhyme, and that generation is also one that is very nervous about many pesticides because they know they have caused problems in the past. But the rise of the bedbug probably shows that we've run too far in the other direction."

Bedbugs are, well, disgusting.

The bugs start out nearly invisible - less than a quarter of an inch long and so light brown they can seem almost transparent. But after they bite a host, and gorge on human blood for nights on end, they turn a deep, mahogany red and can swell to nearly the size of a ladybug.

They drop blood-infused feces all over bed sheets - one of the telltale signs of their presence - and give off a sickly-sweet odor.

And, perhaps worst of all, they are astonishingly resilient. Although they prefer to make their homes in the crevices of mattresses during the day, bedbugs can hibernate in floorboards or even wooden picture frames for more than a year - emerging after the exterminator is long gone, the new bed has been purchased and the residents are back to sleeping peacefully through the night.

Scratching yourself yet?

Danny Lucey knows how you feel. The minute the 22-year-old New Yorker begins to talk about his apartment's infestation with bedbugs, he starts vigorously raking his fingernails over his arms and legs.

"Just thinking about them makes me start to itch," Lucey said.

The bedbugs have spread through Lucey's Queens apartment building, infesting at least seven bedrooms. The guys next door were hit the worst; their mattresses were so infested that the blood-filled bugs were crawling over each other in a scene like something out of a bad science fiction movie.

"We've had the exterminator in, like, four or five times," Lucey said, "and they just keep coming back. I'm getting to the point where I don't even notice when they bite me anymore, but my girlfriend is completely freaked out."

Pest-control experts emphasize that bedbugs usually are not a reflection of bad housekeeping or poor hygiene. They are often simply a case of bum luck.

Strange as it may sound, there is a strong correlation between bugs in the bed and bats in the belfry. Bedbugs often are carried by bats or birds, particularly swallows, which may nest in attics. The bedbugs then multiply quickly because they thrive in the warmer temperatures provided by a building's shelter.

"That's when they begin to make their way through the walls or vents and into the inhabited part of the dwelling," said entomologist English.

Bedbugs prefer to hide during the day and emerge at night in search of food. They are attracted to warmth and the scent of human breath, so they tend to make their way to the bedroom. Unlike ticks or lice, which like to stay on their host, bedbugs will feast on their sleeping human entrees, then burrow deep into the mattress or other dark places.

Because the critters are such natural hitchhikers, hotels are hotbeds for bedbugs. Once the bugs arrive, often in the belongings of international travelers, they migrate by foot traffic, through air ducts, on housekeeping carts and even by vacuum cleaner.

Meek of Orkin said virtually all of his company's big hotel chain clients have battled bedbugs in recent years. Orkin has begun offering training seminars to the hotel industry, telling workers what to look for so they will catch an infestation early.

Once bedbugs take up residence, they are extremely difficult to quell. Most pesticides on the market today are very target specific, meaning they work only on a certain insect. And few products are geared specifically to bedbugs.

"In the old days, when we used stronger pesticides and less target-specific pesticides, bedbugs were just kind of killed in the process without us ever even realizing we were getting them," English said. "But now if you're spraying for cockroaches, the pesticide often will only kill a cockroach. Or if you're spraying for ants, you'll be using something that only takes out ants."

Residents of Boston's Allston-Brighton neighborhood know just how bad things can get when bedbugs move onto the block. Earlier this month, the problem grew so severe that several families had to move from their homes and at least one bite-covered child was hospitalized. Building after building became infested, and although bedbugs don't usually cause or spread diseases, the nuisance factor was immeasurable.

"You wouldn't think that something as small as a bedbug could make you miss a day of work or completely prevent you from sleeping for nights on end," said City Council member Jerry McDermott. "But they really can."

Constituents began bringing plastic bowls filled with bedbugs for McDermott to inspect. He soon ordered a special hearing on the matter, much to the initial chagrin of his council colleagues.

"You should have seen people roll their eyes and grin when I said we needed to take up the issue of bedbugs," he said.

Boston has since launched a full-fledged public-awareness campaign, distributing fliers about bedbugs. McDermott said most buildings are free of bedbugs now, but he still cringes every time he sees someone pick up discarded furniture from dumpsters or sidewalks.

"I just wonder if the problem is getting passed on to the next guy, the next building or the next neighborhood," he said.

Lucey suspects that could be the case in his Queens neighborhood. Less than three hours after the residents of his building hauled their mattresses to the curb, someone hauled them off. Some poor soul was about to find out the origin of the cutesy saying, "Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite."

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© 2003, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services