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Don Wilder remembers the night he found his own blood on his sheets. Itchy red welts had been appearing on his arms and legs for six months.
His doctor, dermatologist, plastic surgeon, and psychiatrist all had different theories—so he tried prescriptions and rubbed Bactine and lidocaine lotion on his skin. But the red marks only spread. “Literally hundreds” of them dotted his legs that night in October 2005, he says, when he lifted his sheet to find blood “all over.”
The next morning Wilder scoured his apartment. When he pulled his bed away from the wall, he found an empty cardboard box on the floor. It held a nest with a layer of eggs so thick it looked like wax in a beehive. Hundreds of bedbugs crawled around inside, active and robust from feeding on Wilder’s body.
“They’re like little blood sacks running around,” he says.
Wilder, a hairdresser, is one of many tenants in the Norwood apartment building at 14th and N Streets NW, near Logan Circle, who are reluctant bedbug experts after years of battling infestations. Wilder says his seventh-floor apartment and the plush sofa that once doubled as a roosting spot for bedbugs are now bug-free. But 10 units at the Norwood still hosted bedbugs as of last week.
For three years, the Norwood Tenants Association complained to various D.C. agencies and the D.C. Council, filed a lawsuit, purchased bedbug extermination chemicals from the Internet, and finally agreed at the end of last year to buy the building, which the D.C. tax and revenue office values at more than $7 million. It is now seeing quicker responses to bedbug infestations from building management and the landlord, according to tenants association co-president Silvia Salazar.
The Norwood is one of many bedbug hot spots in the D.C. area. The relevant D.C. agencies haven’t tracked bedbug infestations for long; they’re still grouped in the catchall “vermin.” Yet the problem is entrenched enough that the District government is launching a public information campaign about these critters.
“We know we’re not alone here, and people are desperate to know what to do,” says Salazar.
My own bedbug fiasco began two summers ago, in a house on the U Street corridor. My boyfriend, Josh, had just returned from a weeklong trip to Montana, and it was a hot Sunday night in August. As we drifted off to sleep, his bedroom was pitch black and silent except for the hum of central air.
Then I felt a pinprick on my forehead. On my arm. On my forehead again.
“Hey, I think something’s biting me,” I said. “I’m gonna turn on the light real fast.”
I lunged out of bed and fumbled for the light switch.
In retrospect, it was so obvious. My right thigh, calf, and foot had been collecting bites for weeks. The red welts would appear in straight lines running down my legs, clustered like Braille along a vein. They had a burning itch so persistent that purple marks from all the scratching lingered for days after the bumps disappeared—giving me a nice “junkie leper” look.
For a couple of weeks, I did Google searches on various bug bites, rashes, diseases, and allergic reactions.
I called my mother, a nurse, who said, “Maybe you have fleas.” My coworkers speculated on it, too: It could be my laundry detergent. Or a ravenous and very persistent mosquito.
With the bedroom light on, I looked at Josh’s bed. At first it was just a navy-blue ocean of sheets. Then there appeared a rust-colored, translucent bug that could have been mistaken for a tick. And another, a white baby, that looked like a scurrying grain of salt.
Josh reached down and tugged at the bottom sheet. It came loose and, just like a horror movie, revealed a mattress crawling with bugs. Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of them swarmed like ants on a scrap of food as they scrambled for their hiding place. Some poked along, bloated from their dinner.
As I backed out of the room cussing and frantically shaking out my hair—and spotted a fat bug heading for the doorway—it hit me. Those things had been feasting on my blood for weeks.
Bedbugs are the vampires of the insect class—nocturnal, sanguivorous, and legendarily hard to kill.
The bugs are tenacious and invasive, even down to a mating ritual scientists call “traumatic insemination,” wherein the male stabs the female in her abdomen with his genitalia and ejaculates into her body cavity.
Evolution gave the bugs a set of survival traits that makes them seem almost diabolical. They feed at night when they sense their prey has fallen asleep. They hide from daylight by squeezing between mattress seams and into floorboard cracks. They can live without food for as long as seven to 18 months, depending on whom you ask. They’re as fast and light-footed as ants, with a numbing saliva, making them barely detectable while they feed. They hitchhike on clothes and inside luggage, and they often sneak into new homes on secondhand mattresses picked up from a Dumpster or sidewalk.
Bedbugs have been around since the 17th century and in the United States since colonial times. They went dormant in the middle of the 20th century, due to American use of DDT and other pesticides.
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Now they’re back; some blame the disappearance of harsh synthetic pesticides, others attribute it to more global travel and residential transiency. The bugs first popped up again in major metropolitan areas then spread to rural areas, public transit, beach houses, cruise ships. There have even been cases of bedbugs living in prosthetic limbs and under toenails.
“Our first finding was 1998 in this area, a hotel situation. From there it just seemed like it escalated exponentially,” says Richard Kramer of the Brookville, Md.–based Innovative Pest Management, Inc. “Now we treat thousands of apartments per year for bedbugs, and we’re just a small company.”
Kramer says one building gets at least five treatments a week from his company. Most of its clients are apartment buildings with overoccupied units—as many as six to eight people living in an efficiency.
Infestation numbers in D.C. reached a plateau two to three years ago, he says. Instead of diminishing in number, the infestations seem to be dispersing, creeping out from a core in the northwestern quadrant of the city, northeast to Laurel and across the Potomac River into Northern Virginia, he says.
“I would say that it is a growing problem, but that’s just my opinion,” says Shana Kemp, a spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). DCRA encounters bedbug problems as part of its mission to enforce the District’s housing code.
Another agency, the city’s Department of Health, gets a little closer to the critters. Gerard Brown, who heads the department’s rodent-control division, first spotted an issue with bedbugs in June. Ever since, these tiny pests have eaten up a sizable chunk of his anti-vermin portfolio.
Brown’s people operate under a different set of rules from the DCRA—instead of monitoring the infestations, the Department of Health can actually treat them and does so regularly in homeless shelters. It tries various methods to educate the public, including working with neighborhood groups to get the word out. It’s also been tracking reports since June.
“When we realized that it was a beginning to be a problem, then with the support of the mayor’s office and our director’s office, I started doing research,” says Brown.
So far Brown has taken calls on more than 50 properties. Almost one-fifth of those are hotels. The rest are single-family homes, apartment buildings, a school, and a dialysis center where a patient was infested. When Brown goes out to deliver presentations on bedbugs to community groups, senior housing centers, halfway houses, or property managers, he hears even more reports, he says. He was approached by a government worker whose own apartment building was “totally infested.”
Blame that problem on the landlords. One of the reasons for the bugs’ ubiquity in multi-unit dwellings is that that property owners don’t want to pay to treat multiple units. So bugs in the unit that exterminators are paid to treat just pick up and move next door, or upstairs or downstairs. Two weeks later, a fresh crop of baby bugs hatches and settles into its new home.
Brown counters with a view of landlords not widely shared in the world of D.C. affordable housing. He says that landlords aren’t reluctant—they’re desperate to clear the infestations. “They will ask, ‘What can I do? Help me. I did this, I did this.’ They fax me invoices for the pest control and say, ‘What else can I do? If there’s something I can do I will do it,’” Brown says.
The city hopes to head off some of those questions via a public awareness campaign sponsored by the Health Department along with the Office of the Tenant Advocate and various tenants associations. The department just wrapped up filming on its first bedbug public service announcement. It was shot in a Norwood apartment whose residents agreed to cooperate in exchange for having the department treat a bedbug outbreak.
A complete series of treatments ranges in cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Josh’s small infestation required three visits at $400. Because of the expense of hiring an expert, local hardware stores have seen growing demand for do-it-yourself chemicals deemed questionable by the pest control industry.
“Most products that people can go out and buy at Home Depot…don’t work very well,” says Kramer, who spent 22 years as a U.S. Army entomologist before starting his company. Bedbugs have developed a resistance over the years to some of the retail chemicals, he says. “For cockroaches and mice, I say if you want to do your own pest management, go at it. Bedbugs is a totally different deal.”
“If you can get an exterminator, that’s the gold standard, but in this economy, what are you gonna do?,” says Salazar.
One variety sold in the District is results—works in minutes! with a two-page user guide that contains the sad truth: results would take 35 days of meticulous powdering on the bed, floor, and wherever else a bug could potentially hide. “Even a day lapse could set you back by weeks,” the directions say.
Farah Fosse of the Adams Morgan–based Latino Economic Development Corporation, which sponsored bedbug public outreach events in the District last summer, says tenants with long-standing problems are bringing in “really powerful chemicals” like paint thinner to kill the bugs.
One mother in the Norwood used to spread diesel fuel on the floorboards and around her child’s bed to kill bedbugs, says Salazar.
The diesel fuel method has been employed elsewhere in the building by a group of Salvadoran men whose only obvious home furnishings are a mattress on the floor and a rolled-up blanket.
All of them were told diesel fuel was a bedbug treatment, Salazar explains.
“Aren’t you worried that the fuel or fumes will make you sick?” I ask one of them.
“I’m more scared of the bedbugs, because they give me diseases,” he says.
Diesel fuel and gasoline were actually recommended as recently as the 1940s as a bedbug treatment, according to sources in the pest control industry.
“I’m sure that created many fires back in the day,” Kramer says, adding with a tense chuckle that diesel probably does suffocate the bugs but is “not a good plan.”
Norwood resident David Fabien keeps a moat of chalky pesticide powder dusted along his doorway. A couple months after occupying his unit in 2005, he discovered spots of dried-blood waste—bedbug calling cards—on the corners of a picture frame on his wall. Even now, sometimes a twitch at night will convince him to throw off the sheets, turn on the light, and check the bed.
Now that his infestation is gone, Fabien wants people to know that it’s “OK to talk about it.”
Salazar keeps her closet fully stocked with extra bottles of pesticide powders and sprays. She started finding bites on her face years ago. They looked like bee stings, and one bite swelled her eye shut. Salazar pinpointed the cause by doing research from her office at the National Institutes of Health but thought she was the only renter infested. About four months later during a tenants association meeting, when kids and senior residents showed up with bites and a tenant arrived with a jar of live specimens, Salazar realized how far the problem reached. DCRA performed a building-wide inspection in the summer of 2006 and cited it as infested.
The experience and the constant vigilance needed to simply control the bugs left deep treadmarks in Salazar’s psyche. She calls it “bedbug psychosis.” She says she still wakes up at 2 a.m. some nights throwing off her covers because she feels something bite her. She won’t buy wooden furniture or anything made from natural fibers, and upon seeing Fabien’s door decorated with cloth and padding, like a big satiny pillow, Salazar recoiled. “That, I would never be able to do. I’d just be thinking, bedbugs could hide there.”
The outbreak at my boyfriend’s house unleashed in me a whole slew of fun new quirks not unlike Salazar’s.
For weeks after the discovery, I would dart upright in bed in the wee hours of the morning and brush my hands over the mattress, without any memory of it. Twice a day I’d comb the bed frame, sheet corners, mattress seams, baseboards and floor—where the critters typically hang out—for bugs, eggs, blood spots, or shed carapaces. I stiffened at the mention of any bug.
My purse once touched Josh’s bedroom floor, so I threw it in my back seat on a 90-degree day to bake, then I froze it for 24 hours, too, just in case.
It’s horrific enough to wake up with bugs crawling all over your body and face, like you’re a big, fleshy slop trough. But what drove me nuts was the notion that my boyfriend’s bed, and mine, and any other bed for that matter, were no longer safe.
Over-the-top, hypersensitive, even PTSD-like psychological reactions to bedbugs are actually common enough to have yielded lawsuits—an opera singer, a Fordham college student, and a Fox News employee have sued over psychological trauma from bedbugs.
“I think people need to chill out,” says Richard J. Pollack of the Laboratory of Public Health Entomology at Harvard School of Public Health.
Pollack is one of few researchers devoting his time to the bedbug. (He has never had a home infestation but does keep a whole bedbug farm in his office. He lets them crawl on his arm every couple of weeks to get them “all excited.”)
He says bug hysteria might be more harmful than the bugs themselves, which are not known to transmit any diseases. “They’ve invaded the sanctity of our homes, our castles,” Pollack says, adding that bedbugs aren’t an epidemic—most hotels, apartments, and homes aren’t infested.
That’s little solace to the people for whom bedtime brings about a very particular form of hysteria. Last summer at the Norwood, Salazar introduced me to 8-year-old Alex, who lives in the building and grew up with bedbugs. No sooner do the words leave her mouth than Alex raises his foot and rubs it against his other ankle on a darkened, swollen spot. His Pavlovian scratching lasts until I leave.
“There are rational ways to deal with it, and there are irrational ways,” says Pollack.
I chose the latter.
Josh’s bedbugs were extinct soon after a pest control company went to work. My hypervigilance stuck around, though. And got worse. I couldn’t sleep. What if the bugs resurrected in Josh’s bedroom? What if a bug escaped from the double-knotted-and-duct-taped grocery bag where I put his clothes when he stayed over? What if an egg breached the defenses of my insect-free zone and hatched, and breeding bugs somehow escaped my notice long enough to overtake my car and house and Josh’s house, too?
Both of us were a wreck.
“I’m filled with a sense of creeping dread,” Josh wrote to me in an e-mail. “I have yet to see any bug activity anywhere in my room following the second spraying and daily inspections of my mattress at this point have been entirely without incident. The not as good: Due to my own paranoia, I am still not using sheets or a pillow.”
Then one day, I walked in on Josh staring at my mattress with a devastated look on his face. “I found one,” he said. Instantly I began to itch. Then I cried, made a panicked call to an exterminator, bought an airtight mattress cover that functioned as a plastic bug-diaper for my bed, warned my roommates, and braced myself for a bomb that never dropped.
Josh returned to my house that night to find me deranged, with duct tape stretched across my bedroom floor, sticky side up, in what was probably some kind of pagan-ritual shape around my bed. I proudly explained that it was a trap for any bugs attempting to escape the bed and told him how I’d vacuumed every slat in my hardwood floor and sprayed rubbing alcohol on all my belongings—bed frame, purses, leather shoes, even my laptop.
He followed me into my basement and stood next to the dryer as I washed yet another load of clothes in scalding hot water. He fidgeted with the Velcro pocket on his cargo shorts in a “My girlfriend is turning into a psycho hosebeast and I can’t tell if I should fight or flee” kind of way.
“You should get some sleep,” he said quietly, talking me off the ledge. “It’s almost 2 o’clock. You’ll be exhausted tomorrow. Besides, it’s not really necessary to do all this.”
“No,” I said, tossing clothes from the washer to the dryer. “I don’t want this to become a problem. Better to take care of it early.”
“OK,” he said. “Well, it just seems like you’re going kind of crazy with everything.”
I slammed the dryer door. “I’m sorry,” I said snottily. “I didn’t realize there was a sane way to deal with bugs crawling on you, drinking your blood while you sleep.”