Bed bugs in the London Review of Books & Sunday Times Magazine

by nobugsonme on December 22, 2010

in bed bugs, bed bugs in the media, history, london

Hugh Pennington takes bed bugs as his subject in the January 6, 2011 edition of the London Review of Books.

I was glad to see the story published, and it is interesting on some levels, but falls short on others.

My main concern here is that Pennington reiterates several times that bed bugs “have only nuisance value” and do not cause health problems. To wit:

Bedbugs do not spread disease. Their presence has been taken as an indicator of poor home hygiene, and they can be a precipitant of entomophobia, but beyond that they haven’t had much significance for public health.

As if entomophobia were itself the problem, rather than a by-product of an encounter with bed bugs!

And let’s clarify once more: the presence of bed bugs is not an indicator of poor home hygiene, though a clean, decluttered, and regularly inspected home allows for early detection and treatment.

Pennington’s statement ignores the many real health problems bed bugs are known to cause, which — leaving aside the rare victims who develop anaphylaxis — most commonly range from anxiety and lack of sleep (with all of its possible and very real negative health outcomes) to more serious problems, which according to
the World Health Organization’s 2008 report Public health significance of urban pests include bronchial asthma, anemia, and “a general malaise” that can result from numerous bed bug bites (the WHO report is discussed here, and elsewhere on Bedbugger, and can be downloaded here).

The WHO’s overall assessment was that more research was needed both “to determine whether or not bed bugs can successfully transmit human pathogens” (149: 2008) and “to further characterize the nature and effective treatment of the effects on people of unusual, extreme or very persistent bedbug bites” (2008: 149).

Entomologists are very concerned about the health consequences of bed bugs. Dr. Susan Jones says that the public health importance of bed bugs is “serious as sin.” Dr. Stephen Kells suggests that “Although they don’t transmit diseases, they could almost be considered like a disease themselves.”

Beyond the sticky issue of bed bugs and health, much of the history that is presented in the LRB article — from the ladies on the Dundee trams, to Mathias v. Accor, to the early 20th C treatment of bed bugs with Zyklon-B — is familiar to longtime Bedbuggers, but not very well known to the general public, and worth transmitting more widely.

I was intrigued by this tidbit:

The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service has found bedbugs at airports in woven cane baskets and woven straw bags – as well as on roses from Kenya, in baggage from Europe, and on an airport inspection bench.

I wonder what methods officials are using to search for bed bugs at Australian airports, and how aggressively this is being done, if it’s being done at all — or if these were simply chance finds, when inspectors were seeking out other pests and problems.

The article also spends some time on the popular topic of bed bug mating. That area seems to hold a lot of human interest, as does the idea that bed bugs can be detected by human olfactory organs. The following statement by Pennington will likely mislead some people trying to determine whether they have bed bugs with their nostrils:

Their smell is easily detected by humans. It has been described as an ‘obnoxious sweetness’, and is characteristic of a bedroom with a heavy infestation.

There is a scent, but from what I gather it is rarely detected by humans. (Maybe because most people don’t have “heavy infestations”?)

It is my sense that the smell of bed bugs, where detected, defies easy description: some people think bed bugs smell like cilantro (coriander), others like ripe raspberries.

I know you’ll want to read the rest of the LRB piece here.

The Sunday Times (UK) Magazine also had a story this week on this pest: “Tales from the bug apple,” focusing largely on the problem of bed bugs in New York City. (We unfortunately can’t link to this because Times content is subscription-only.)

Times journalist Ariel Leve, who has been fighting bed bugs in her New York apartment, interviews a number of experts including the wonderful Lou Sorkin. She was wise to call on Londoner David Cain, who tried to set the record straight about the bugs also being a significant problem in the UK.

One of the highlights of this story is where Pest Away’s Jeff Eisenberg suggests that the reason bed bugs are not attracting the attention in Europe that they do in the US is that “Europeans, to put it mildly, have a higher tolerance for pests.”

Maybe, but a tolerance for bed bugs? Though most Bedbugger Forum users are in North America, those who do surf in from Edinburgh, Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam or Uppsala, seem quite distressed.

Personally, my theory has always been that journalists always focus on bed bug problems elsewhere, since bed bugs are always worse “over there.”

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