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Just in time for Halloween, here's a horror story that might make you squirm in your seat — or bed. It's a cautionary tale about bedbugs, Cimex lectularius, those quarter-inch-long, six-legged, reddish-brown, apple-seed-shaped, wingless insects that live in mattresses and as parasites, love to sup on our blood at night.
Their telltale bite is usually small — flat or raised bumps on the skin that are red, swollen and itchy.
Experts say they can live anywhere in the home but are especially drawn to the warm and soft nooks and crannies of textiles, including upholstered furniture. One of their favorite haunts is a mattress, box spring, and/or bed frame, hence the name.
Upping the "ick" factor is that in 2012 the city of Chicago surpassed Cincinnati as the bedbug capital of the U.S.
With Oak Park as one if its closest neighbors, why wouldn't bedbugs be here? These pesky opportunists can hitch a ride on any mammal, anytime, anywhere to wherever.
"[In Oak Park] they are everywhere, and because bedbugs are hitchhikers, you can sit down in a chair that someone else was sitting in a few minutes ago, or you can be on the el, or at the grocery store, and if there is a bedbug there, they are jumping onto your clothes and going home with you," says John Ross, chief property inspector for the village of Oak Park. In his job overseeing the inspection of 15,000 rental units throughout the village, Ross says he averages roughly three calls about bedbugs a week.
"The way things look like today with bedbugs is that it makes no difference whether you are in a single-family home or the largest building in the village. If you don't have them yet, [at some point] you are probably going to get them. Now that may be a little scary to hear, but that is the way it seems."
Ross adds that a bedbug's blood meal usually takes place at night while a host is sleeping, but it's not uncommon for someone to get bit while enjoying a midday nap.
"In your bed at nighttime, when everything is still … they can get you," he says. "They tell you that if you are going to a hotel or motel, the first thing to do is take your luggage and put it in the bathtub before you start inspecting the rest of the room because they do not go to hard surfaces."
Coming soon to a mattress near you
To date, Ross says, no one really knows why bedbugs are back, but some are attributing the rise to an increase in overseas work assignments and international travel. They don't carry diseases, however, as roaches do, which means they're not a health hazard, just a pest. Even so, their apparent comeback has put people on edge, especially locals who manage buildings.
As a result, when it comes to preventing a single, or building-wide, bedbug infestation, they try to be pro-active and go into battle mode.
Bob Planek, who with his brother Bill co-manages oakparkapartments.com, which has over 1,000 apartments in the area, says that "on the occasion we get a report of even a single bedbug, we don't wait until the second report. If we hear from a tenant that 'I think I have a bedbug,' we are jumping into action because we know it is an easier problem to solve initially than it is once there is an infestation. You really have to take this seriously. It is real, and we do live next to the city with the most [bedbugs] in the country, so …"
Likewise, Edward Solan, CEO of the Oak Park Residence Corporation (ResCorp), which markets over 500 apartments in 22 buildings in the village, many of them to seniors and individuals with disabilities, says the only way to keep them from taking over is to be pro-active, persistent and educate everyone to help eliminate misconceptions.
"Many seniors are embarrassed that they have them, and don't want to tell anyone, and they try to deal with it themselves. That always makes the problem worse," Solan says. "One of the key things we do, particularly in our senior buildings, is try to educate our people that if you have bedbugs, it is not a sign of weakness on your part, and it is not a sign that you have done anything wrong. You are the innocent victim here, and let's get on it and try to deal with them as quickly as we can."
They let the dogs in
When bedbugs settle in, it's always difficult to get them out, and Ross says bringing in a professional exterminator to assess or attack a bedbug problem is the only way to go. The cost varies, depending on the company and the actions taken.
"You have to deal with them head on, so we always turn it over to the professionals," Planek says, "because though we own the building and we rent the units and the people who live in our units are apartment dwellers, none of us are licensed to eradicate bedbugs.
That's where bug-sniffing dogs come into play, Planek says, "because you want to make sure it's over. The dogs are the only surefire, proven test to determine if the extermination was successful."
In ResCorp buildings, Solan says they regularly contract the services of a canine company to sweep for bedbugs when apartments turn over, and the dogs sniff through, post-extermination, to ensure the premise is bedbug-free.
"If we discover there are bedbugs in a unit in one of our buildings, we will go to all the immediate adjoining units, above, below and to the side — imagine a tic-tac-toe board and the one with the bedbugs is the middle square — to determine if they have spread and then treat them accordingly," Solan says.
According to Ross, "In the case of a rental unit, if you know you do have bedbugs, get in touch with your landlord immediately. Again, people don't want to say they have them because it's [embarrassing] or whatever. But bedbugs are not attracted to dirt, grease, sugar, anything like that at all. They are going for human blood. Period."
It's a royal pain in the you-know-what, thinking about possibly being bit by a bedbug anytime, including on All Hallows Eve, but Ross reiterates that undergoing the ordeal, though unpleasant and annoying, is just dumb luck.
"No, this is not an epidemic," he says, "but bedbugs are a way of life right now, and I think they are going to be for a while. So keep your eye out. Check your mattresses and if you think you have them, have a good exterminator come in and let you know how they can get rid of them."
Bedbugs be gone!
River Forest residents Dan Zalvidar and Iris Saavedra Zalvidar had their first brush with bedbugs this year when their daughter, Natalia, a student at Northwestern University, decided to room with friends in a privately-owned rental house in Evanston — another suburb that abuts Chicago.
Prior to their daughter's move-in date, one of Natalia's housemates was bitten by a bug, and the landlord called an exterminator and had the girl's bedroom treated.
When another housemate was bitten, Zalvidar suspected bedbugs and wanted her daughter to pull out of the living arrangement. But she couldn't break her lease because "the Health Department told me it was not a filth issue," Zalvidar says.
Her worry escalated when she discovered that the landlord had had bedbugs in the residence before, and hadn't been forthcoming.
"I was so angry that she had made no mention and/or had not sprayed again," Zalvidar says.
So she read everything she could about bedbug infestations and developed a plan, in collaboration with a professional exterminator, to deal with it head on.
"I resigned myself to never bringing back any of the furniture we had bought for the apartment. It was so stressful," says Zalvidar.
As a preventive measure, she also washed all the new clothing and linens in very hot water prior to returning them to her daughter. In addition, she encased the new mattress in plastic and after reading that diatomaceous earth was an eco-friendly deterrent to bedbugs, she spread it in every crevice where an insect could go.
After the second go-around with the exterminator, she says that today, her daughter reports from Evanston that the bedbugs haven't been back, which is a relief for all concerned because "there is an epidemic on college campuses and in hotels … but you can pick them up anywhere."