Like many parents, when his children were small, Tom Kump would tuck them in at night with the familiar rhyme, "Night, night, sleep tight — don't let the bed bugs bite!"
"But at the time, I didn't know bed bugs were real," said Kump, now Chemung County Director of Environmental Health.
Bed bugs are, unfortunately, all too real after being nearly eradicated 50 years ago. The loathsome little critters are making a comeback in the Southern Tier in suitcases, clothing and beds.
"Bed bugs are not dangerous to your health," Kump said. "But they're a nuisance, and if you wake up to learn your legs have been mauled by them… well, it's not a pleasant situation."
Until about five years ago, Kump's office never received any complaints about bed bug infestations. Complaints of bed bugs have jumped in recent years, although the agency doesn't track the number of reports since the pests don't pose the health threat other insects or parasites, he said.
"We forward complaints to code enforcement," he said.
Bed bug infestations are code violations, although they are not enough to condemn a building, said City of Binghamton Code Enforcement Supervisor Fred Grisel.
The insects were listed in September as a part of condemnation proceedings against three buildings on Binghamton's South Side. Code inspectors cited structural deficiencies and rotting floorboards, as well as the presence of maggots, cockroaches and bed bugs.
However, derelict or low-income housing is not the only place bed bugs are found, Grisel said. The list of places where bed bugs are found include hotels, theaters, schools, daycares and dormitories.
According to Grisel, if reports of bed bugs are founded, code inspectors issue a violation against the tenant or property owner considered responsible for the infestation. The responsible party is advised to hire a certified professional exterminator to deal with the problem, he said.
"And it's not a matter of spraying the place once or twice," he said. "No, it can be five or six times. (The cost) really adds up."
If a follow-up inspection shows bed bugs are still present, the tenant or owner is issued a court appearance ticket.
Even a successful extermination must be followed by absolute vigilance in cleaning, Grisel said.
While some owners may opt for over the counter insecticides claiming to kill bed bugs dead, "some work and some don't," Grisel said.
A chief cause for the widespread reappearance of the bug is the widespread travel habits of today's society. The apple seed–sized adult insect is a global traveler, hopping on board clothing, luggage or other items and settling in beds or walls. They aren't picky about where they stay, and have been found on airplanes, seats and coat check rooms.
And if no hosts are handy, the bugs also can go dormant for as long as six months to a year. The bug is not known to carry disease and its bite is unlikely to cause more than an irritation similar to a mosquito bite.
That lack of risk places it lower on the alarm scale at schools than parasites, such as lice or scabies, said Ithaca City School District Nurse Judy Hoffman.
Last October, the school reported a bed bug had been found in the back pack of an unidentified child. The school notified parents and guardians, and took the appropriate measures to ensure the problem was an isolated one, she said.
Since then, there have been no reported sightings of the pest in any of the schools, Hoffman said.
"They are not a huge risk," she said. "They don't live on the the person. They have a meal and move on."
It is very possible for someone to be bitten and not know about it until a welt appears at the site of the bite, according to Hoffman.
While bedbugs are affected by temperature, it is unlikely a cold winter will exterminate them, since most places are heated, Kump said.
"Well, if they're outside in this (near zero-degree) temperature, well, they'd be dead," Kump said. "But most people keep their places between 60 and 70, and that's ideal for the bugs."
While the nuisance factor of bed bugs is far higher than any known health risk, the pests are capable of inflicting real misery, according to Grisel.
"You see children with a couple bites, that's one thing," he said. "You see them covered with hundreds of bites, and that is an entirely different matter."
BATTLING BED BUGS
WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE. Adults look like apple seeds with legs. Young bed bugs—nymphs—look like adults, only smaller. Newly hatched nymphs are poppy seed-sized. Eggs are tiny white, and hard to spot.
WHAT DOES A BED BUG BITE FEEL AND LOOK LIKE? Most bed bug bites occur at night are initially painless, but later turn into itchy skin welts. These welts do not have a red spot in the center like flea bites.
ARE BED BUGS DANGEROUS? Although bed bugs are an annoyance, they are not known to spread disease.
HOW DOES A HOME BECOME INFESTED WITH BED BUGS? In most cases, people carry bed bugs into their homes unknowingly, in infested luggage, furniture, bedding, or clothing. Bed bugs may also travel between apartments through small crevices and cracks in walls and floors.
HOW DO I CLEAN INFESTED AREAS?
•Clean bedding, linens, curtains, rugs, carpets, and clothes. To kill bed bugs, wash items in hot water and dry them on the highest dryer setting. Soak delicate clothes in warm water with lots of laundry soap for several hours before rinsing.
•Scrub mattress seams with a stiff brush to dislodge bed bugs and their eggs.
• Bag small items and place in a freezer for 30 days.
•Vacuum mattresses, bed frames, nearby furniture, floors and carpets. Pay special attention to cracks and open spaces. Immediately after vacuuming, put the vacuum cleaner bag in a sealed plastic bag, and dispose of it in an outdoor container.
•Repair cracks in plaster and loose wallpaper.
•If you find bed bugs on a mattress, cover it with a waterproof, zippered mattress cover labeled "allergen rated," or "for dust mites." Keep the cover on for at least one year.
•Dispose of infested items or clutter that can't be cleaned. Seal tightly in a plastic garbage bag and discard in an outside container.
• If you throw infested furniture away, make it undesirable to others by cutting or poking holes in its upholstery or making it unusable. Tape a sign to it that says, "Infested with Bed Bugs."
Source: Broome County Health Department