U.S. News and World Report article on bed bugs

by nobugsonme on July 9, 2007 · 9 comments

in bed bug treatment, bed bugs, bed bugs in the media, usa

Adam Voiland’s article on bed bugs is out in U.S. News and World Report. I spoke with him at great length last week, though it’s my understanding that the magazine did not want to quote me because I would not use my real name, and I would therefore not be considered a credible source. He also did not mention Bedbugger.com among the “bed bug blogs” referred to in the article.

It’s a fairly brief article (as are the companion tips article, and the voiceover the Orkin film we blogged last week), basically an introduction to the topic. And I was glad U.S. News was doing a bed bug story, as I told the reporter.

However, the tone taken near the end of the article concerns me.

Voiland writes,

Some people take bedbugs in stride; for others, killing them becomes almost an obsession. Exterminators, entomologists, and Internet forums are full of war stories: a girl from New York who dumped 5 gallons of insecticide on her mattress; people who have claimed multimillion-dollar damages in court; a photographer from New York who started microwaving her books; and a woman from West Virginia who sprays herself with pesticides before climbing into her bed.

Such stories of misery cause some experts to argue that the problem has been blown completely out of proportion. “Some people in the industry are grandstanding,” says Richard Pollack, an entomologist at Harvard University, who notes that mosquitoes, which spread a number of deadly diseases, are a greater health threat. “People have to make sure they don’t fall prey to stories that are more alarming than they are factual,” says George Rambo, former technical director of the National Pest Control Association and a consultant who points out that even with rising rates of bedbug infestations, the overall number remains relatively low.

I agree that horror stories are often overexaggerated. And I have seen people overreact, and most of us Bedbuggers try to help people remain calm and take sensible steps.

On the other hand, while dumping 5 gallons of pesticide on a mattress is dangerous–seriously, really not a good idea–as someone familiar with this problem, rather than assume such people simply became “obsessed” with fighting bed bugs, I’d ask what that woman must have been feeling that prompted her to take such extreme measures. And if bed bugs are easily managed, and not a big deal, why was she doing anything with pesticides at all, rather than have a PCO eliminate the problem quickly?

Maybe treatment was going badly, and taking months and months. Maybe she could not pay or a landlord wouldn’t. Maybe she was “losing it,” because she went for months with very little sleep, and spent her days suffering from extensive itching.

And the photographer mentioned above probably microwaved her books because she did not want to throw them away or seal them up for 18 months, and she could see they were infested. I am not sure this is a good idea either. But maybe they were valuable, or maybe she needs them for her work. If that seems like an overreaction, then consider throwing away or sealing away the entire contents of your apartment which are often the only options to someone trying to escape bed bugs in cases where apartments are very infested, buildings have several infested apartments, or landlords are just not getting good experienced PCOs to treat all affected units.

Many times doctors are unable to help. Suffering can go on for months before one even figures out the source of the problem. Once you try and get help, it can take 3, 4, or more visits from a PCO spaced at 2-week intervals. That can mean months go by and the problem seems like it won’t go away.

Sometimes landlords will not treat bed bugs properly. And since the bugs can be stealthy, PCOs will sometimes even treat once or twice and declare a home pest-free while the customer is still feeling the itch and seeing signs of bed bugs.

Given those possible scenarios, I don’t entirely blame people for “losing it.”

People who are alarmed should keep in mind that most don’t react to the bites–which not that long ago were a fact of life.

Bed bugs were a fact of life, but people also risked burning their homes down trying to get rid of them by dowsing everything in kerosene. When bed bug infestations were bad, they would even sometimes set the house and contents on fire and start anew. Bed bugs were no small matter, and peoples’ lives were greatly improved by not having them once a solution was offered at the start of World War II.

Voiland also mentions above that “most people don’t react to the bites” (as bed bug experts have claimed). In my opinion, this is not a reason to relax.

People who notice the bites are in a good position to start trying to eliminate bed bugs before they get to a very serious level, and even begin spreading to others.

Those who are unallergic, on the other hand, can be bitten for ages without reacting. They may never notice bed bugs until they have so many that they’re running up and down the walls in broad daylight. And you’d better hope one does not live next door to you, because you’re likely to get bed bugs before a non-reactive neighbor ever knows he had them.

Anyway, Pollack says, with time and patience, most infestations can be eliminated. “I have people who call me in tears. They’re in hysterics,” he says. “My response is to put things in perspective. This is not a terminal illness. Being upset is not going to kill any bedbugs.”

On the other hand, I’ve come across several pest control technicians who are themselves terrified of contracting bed bugs, and bed bug researchers who don’t like to stay in hotels for this same reason. If bed bugs are no big deal, why would getting them be such a concern to people who deal with them everyday, and know them best?

The article began by referring to a student, Kyle Anderson, who had bed bugs. At the end of the article, we come back to him. And the news is hardly relaxing.

Occasionally the critters win. Kyle Anderson tried bug bombs, obsessive vacuuming and laundering, and pleading with his landlord to get the pests under control, but nothing worked. After more than seven months of waking up with bites, he surrendered and moved.

There’s a disconnect between the story of Kurt Anderson and the words of Michael Pollack, who wants bed bug sufferers to calm down.

Bed bugs can be very hard to eliminate if you live in a multi-unit dwelling, and/or you are a tenant and your landlord hires a second-rate PCO, or hires a good PCO but will not pay them to carefully inspect and treat (if necessary) all units adjacent to the one with the complaint.

As Kurt Anderson discovered, your landlord may refuse to treat (or treat properly) and leave you suffering, and you can try and treat bed bugs yourself for seven months, and eventually you may still have to pay to move. Most people who move with active infestations throw away all their stuff. Some do and still manage to move their bed bugs. I wonder if this student escaped bed bug-free. Of course, he won’t know for months. But regardless, he lost a lot due to his bed bugs.

In light of all this, I want to suggest that perhaps we consider that bed bugs are impossible to live with long term, they do impact your lifestyle, stress level, comfort, skin, and sleep. They may cost you a lot of time, money, and even your possessions.

All in all, I am sorry Voiland does not seem to think the problem is very serious, since it has a serious impace on the lives of sufferers, including their health.

1 hopelessnomo July 9, 2007 at 12:23 pm

Hi Nobugs-

I’m so sorry you spent so much time talking to this journalist! I also noticed the mention of the lack of allergic reaction to the bites as a plus! What inanity.

I wonder at journalists sometimes. They are totally missing the larger story. Is it a failure of imagination and empathy or something worse? This particular journalist came to the bedbugger forums to ask people to contact him with their real names. I am glad that, as far as is possible to tell, no one we know was foolish enough to share their personal stories with this guy for the record. I remember, when he came here, in support of his plea, he provided an excerpt of a personal story that he acknowledged he would not use but that was intended to encourage us to talk to him. There was nothing in the article even remotely close in tone.

Well, then. Overall, a pretty useless article, conceived of and executed with an apparent lack of mental exertion. 🙂

In some instances, like the allergic bites reference, it actually does harm.

As for Richard Pollack, I could say a lot about him (self-regarding kettle, meet grandstanding pot), but I think I’m being impolitic enough for one comment!

2 Bugalina July 9, 2007 at 12:34 pm

Typical of our Western thought to disconnect emotional stress from Health and well being. Dr. Pollack has never had bed bugs living in his home. This article I am afraid is yet another one that refuses to examine what devastation bed bugs are reeking on the lives of people. Until people experience bed bugs in their home. Until they feel what it is like to not be able to get into your bed because when you go into rem sleep bugs will be crawling on you, sucking your lifesblood, Until they see how Grandmothers cannot visit the homes of their grandchildren because either one is infested and there is fear of spread. Until they know that exterminations can run into the thousands of dollars, Until they know that bed bugs are costing us emotionally, physically, socially and financlally..Until they “get them” they will remain clueless. When this reporter gave the example on our blog that he was going to tell of a woman who ripped her sheets apart , I knew that his article was going to be yet another clueless one, going for the ‘cartoonishness”….We are at them mercy of extreme ignorance and extreme apathy…Dr.Pollack and others like him may have paper degrees but they are clueless…We here know the truth… For the most part this article is yet another frivolous reportage, imo.

3 nobugsonme July 9, 2007 at 12:37 pm

Hi Nomo,
Just to clarfiy– I did not regret talking to Adam Voiland. He was very pleasant and seemed genuinely interested and concerned about the issue.
I do imagine he got something from our conversation, I just wish the article had taken another route. I don’t doubt that the attitudes and impressions of researchers a journalist speaks to has a huge effect on the tone of these articles.
I just looked at the forum conversation you were referring to, and indeed, the anecdote he shared there was much more poignant and would have conveyed the psychological trauma of bed bugs well. I know he wanted one of us in the US to provide similar but attach a real name. That unwillingness to use pseudonyms is going to hinder research amongst many of us, unfortunately. Especially since so many bed bug articles have described bed bug sufferers as such strange creatures.

4 BBsBlow July 9, 2007 at 12:42 pm

I found these articles to have an obnoxious tone- almost like it’s no big deal and you’ll get great stories out of it! Hardly! Barely touched upon is the upheaval to one’s life, the cost of getting rid of one’s belongings, and the lasting psycological effects of having gone through this experience.

5 parakeets July 9, 2007 at 4:12 pm

I think we here are vanguards in a movement of truth about bedbugs. Those who aren’t on the front lines like we are have absolutely no idea what we are facing, even if they are reporters in national magazines. I know because before I had bedbugs I espoused many of the views on bedbugs that I find abhorrent in others now. Adam Voiland’s article reflects that, even though he spent time researching and writing the article, he just “didn’t get it.” In his case I think his “not getting it” also clues us in on the current level of his journalistic skills. He posted a Boston area code. I guarantee if Mr. Voiland lives in Boston or has friends here, he will come to know this issue personally. I don’t think an author could have written the article that way if he or anyone he knew well had bedbugs.

6 hopelessnomo July 9, 2007 at 5:04 pm

Yes, Nobugs, I think your interview might be represented in the advice side article. I think Bugalina has a point about the emotional stress arising from bedbugs proving to be an unwieldy subject for those who want to write about it. And Blow and Parakeets get it right about what’s wrong here. So then, why not write about the financial angle? That could be very promising and interesting and useful to the larger issues. The financial burdens and difficult issues of responsibility for landlords, tenants, hoteliers, homeowners and cities and public housing administrators would make a good story. If you can’t write about people’s suffering with compassion, why even make the attempt?

This article also suffers from “both sides” balance affliction. Come on, bedbugs are not Morgellon’s. There is no factual dispute. What on earth was George Rambo referring to? Could not Mr. Voiland have asked? One little follow-up question was beyond the precarious balance of his article? Why even set up this dull and useless conflict between those who what? think bedbugs are serious and the “no big deal” camp? True, there are people, both PCOs and entomologists, who have demonstrated contempt for bedbug sufferers, but need their crankiness be elevated in this way? This is what I meant when I said he didn’t really exert himself. He interviewed a lot of people but seems to have learned little, and imparted even less to his readers.

Luckily, a lot of what his sources said is eloquent enough. Dini Miller and Stephen Kells, for example.

Oh, and making bedbugs cute in that bloopers sidebar? Not very!

7 James Buggles July 9, 2007 at 8:33 pm

Pollack should spend a day with a PCO on bedbug jobs in Boston. That might change his outlook. And shame on Adam Voiland (or his editor) for not listing this blog despite pumping NB for information.

8 nobugsonme July 13, 2007 at 7:18 pm

Just thought I’d point to a couple of extensions of this conversation in the forums, which Voiland has responded to today (one of them, anyway):



Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: