Bed bugs were the subject of a report on Morning Edition this morning.
While it is always good that bed bugs are in the news, I have a few issues with the way this story was presented.
First, NPR fell into the trap of describing bed bug bites as if they always look the same:
Mayhill Fowler first noticed the bite marks on her wrists and ankles several years ago when she was living in Brooklyn. New ones showed up almost every morning, usually in groups of three.
“I found out later that this is typical,” Fowler says. “‘Breakfast, lunch and dinner’ is what they call it. And they are very small and kind of hard little bites. You know how mosquito bites can be kind of big? These are kind of small, and they are very itchy.”
Well, actually, bed bug bites are allergic reactions and can look quite different on different people. They do not always appear in groups of three. Single bites are the norm in a great many people, while some have a mixture. I’ve heard experts speculate that the multiple bites occur when we move while being bitten (causing the bed bug to start over) or when it is difficult to find a vein. Bed bug bites also not small on everyone, and they can vary from excruciatingly itchy to non-itchy. Even our photos do not do justice to the range I’ve seen. (More photos are welcomed, if your bed bug bites looked different from these.)
These are not small points. We’re told Fowler went to a doctor who had no clue what was causing these marks. If bed bug bites looked the same on everyone, perhaps doctors would have an easier time of diagnosing them.
Secondly, the article describes how she threw out her mattress, without any critical discussion of how most experts do not recommend this. It actually helps spread bed bugs, because unless you destroy it, someone else will pick that mattress up and re-use or re-sell it. (And by destroy, I don’t even mean a spray-painted warning: they’re commonly ignored.) In cities, that person who claims your curbside cast-offs may well be in your building. Good luck trying not to get those bed bugs back from your neighbors.
Thirdly, the article reinforces the idea that bed bugs are easy to find. They cite Michael Potter from a youtube video:
I’ve been on bedbug infestations where people have been to four different dermatologists, and then you get to their home and you flip over the box springs and it’s like the Boston Massacre. I mean, there’s just thousands of bedbugs, and they never knew they were there.
And doubtless, that happens.
But here’s what happened to me, and many others: we read of this sort of thing in articles and on the internets. We gather together a vacuum or some contact killer just in case we do find hordes of bed bugs, we get a friend to help us turn our bed upside down, and steady our nerves with a deep breath, and flip the mattress, and — voila! Nothing.
“Oh! Great! I don’t have bed bugs!” says the innocent Bedbugger.
“Darn, where are they hiding?” says the jaded one.
Many, many people do not find such obvious signs as this. After flipping the mattress and finding nothing, most folks trying to figure out what is “biting” them spend some time saying, “Thank God it isn’t bed bugs!” And in some cases, they are right. But many, many of us are later frustrated to find out that bed bugs can hide really, really well.
Potter’s comment is a great soundbite, but the American public, at this juncture needs information rather than stories. (Remember, I am a huge fan of Dr. Potter’s, and am starting to think he’s even cooler than Harry Potter, if you Bedbuggers know what I mean.) Cold, hard bed bug information is not really Morning Edition’s purview, but with a little editing, you could make this story more informative as well as interesting.
The photo caption “Bedbugs normally live in mattresses or suitcases,” with no elaboration, gives the wrong idea, and although there was an always-welcome article from Dini Miller on signs and what to do, I am afraid this report fell short of what I’d expect from NPR.
Have a listen, or a read, here.