North America's Bedbug-Infested Cities

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Though often mistaken for heat rashes or allergic reactions, hive-like welts on the arms and legs of travelers often indicate the presence of bedbugs. While calling a hotel "roach-infested" used to be the most off-putting description, the bedbug epidemic has led to a whole host of new fears.

Bedbugs were largely eradicated in the 1950s thanks to the now-banned synthetic pesticide DDT. As the epidemic grows again, so do fears ("bedbugs" was the 44th most searched term directly on the Centers for Disease Control website in 2009). According to the Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite Act of 2009, bedbug populations in the United States have increased by 500-percent in the past few years. To put things in perspective, there were 537 bedbug complaints in New York in 2004 and only 82 confirmed infestations. In 2009 those numbers skyrocketed to 10,985 complaints and 4,084 confirmed infestations.

New York is taking the issue seriously. After forming a 10-member Bedbug Advisory Board, mayor Michael Bloomberg released a 39-page plan outlining bedbug control efforts and resources and guidelines for building managers and residents on how to deal with issues like disposing of infested furniture. And it's not just Manhattan that is fighting back by forming committees that educate the public and business owners to help stop problems from spreading. The Central Ohio Bed Bug Task force oversees issues in Columbus and the surrounding areas. Concerned citizens in Chicago formed a bedbug policy advocacy group. Toronto Public Health provides resources to the city's citizens and co-chairs the Toronto Bed Bug Project action committee.

And just because "bed" is in the bugs' name, hotels and apartments aren't the only victims. A Denver library had to destroy rare books after a September 2009 outbreak. Manhattan saw locations for Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria's Secret close down to fight infestations in summer 2010. The use of sniffer dogs is proving an effective way to pinpoint the source of a bedbug infestation. Office buildings and stores all over Manhattan have been bringing in dogs to locate and confirm issues. In Toronto, a bedbug-sniffing dog was brought in for a hotel check before the recent G20 meeting. "I've been doing this for the past 27 years, and I'm 35-percent accurate," said Michael Goldman of Toronto's Purity Pest Control, who oversaw the pre-G20 check. Kody, the company's seven-year-old Shepherd mix is 95-percent accurate, according to Goldman.

Members of the hotel industry are making valiant efforts to keep the bedbugs from biting into guest comfort--and profits--by ensuring employees stick to strict laundering and vacuuming standards and by switching to bedbug-proof mattress covers. To limit liability suits, some hotels are also getting certified pest-free by monthly sniffer dog inspections. One important piece of advice is that just because you always book high-end hotels doesn't mean you are safe. With bedbugs such good travelers, they can end up anywhere, meaning that even some of the best hotels can have these uninvited guests.

Staying Safe

You don't have to bring a trained canine on the road with you to protect yourself, though. Before you book, scour reviews online for recent complaints. Once in a hotel room, never put your luggage on the bed. Stow your closed luggage on the luggage rack and pull it away from the wall. It's also best not to unpack into drawers. Check the headboard of the bed--front and back. Lift and inspect the mattress and shine a flashlight into the crevices. Check sheets and pillows for telltale black or brown blood spots. Look in and under the drawer in the bedside table. If you see any signs of the wee beasties or are in any doubt that the room is 100-percent bedbug free--even if it's evidence that there may once have been bedbugs--discretely inform front desk and ask for another room that doesn't share a wall with your current quarters. Cornell's New York State Integrated Pest Management Program has a handy downloadable wallet-sized card that tells you what to look out for in hotels rooms.

If you do suspect or know you've brought back some six-legged, unwanted extra baggage from a hotel stay, launder your clothes the second you get home--unpacking directly into plastic bags if you have to carry clothes anywhere--and vacuum or steam clean your luggage. Never unpack onto a carpet. Freezing clothes and even suitcases is also an excellent way to ensure you don't keep any bug-eyed houseguests.

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