WASHINGTON — The biggest bedbug outbreak since World War II has sent a collective shudder among apartment dwellers, college students and business travelers across the nation.
The bugs — reddish brown, flat and about the size of a grain of rice — suck human blood. They resist many pesticides and spread quickly in certain mattress-heavy buildings, such as hotels, dormitories and apartment complexes.
Two shelters have closed temporarily in Charlotte, N.C., because of bedbugs, a Yahoo chat group dedicates itself to sufferers and countless bedbug blogs provide forums for news, tips and commiseration. State inspectors say that more emphasis may be needed to tackle the creatures.
Federal officials have taken notice of the resurgence. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency held its first-ever bedbug summit, and now a North Carolina congressman wants to take on the insect.
Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield just introduced legislation that would authorize $50 million that's already in the Department of Commerce budget to train health inspectors how to recognize signs of the insects.
The Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite Act of 2009 also would require public housing agencies to submit bedbug inspection plans to the federal government. It would add bedbugs to a rodent and cockroach program in the Department of Health and Human Services. It also would require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research bedbugs' impact on public mental health.
Butterfield's letter to congressional colleagues about the legislation attracted lots of attention: It was topped with a full-color picture of the insect sitting on human skin.
"Unfortunately, in recent years, the United States has seen a resurgence in bedbugs," the letter reads. "That's right — they're back in the sack — and biting."
Bedbugs have hit hotels and homes in every state. The creatures are amazing hitchhikers, experts say, and easily travel in suitcases, boxes or packages. They can live for up to a year without food.
Apparently no state has a central reporting system for bedbugs, according to Butterfield's office, and since the bug carries no known diseases, many health departments don't consider it a public health threat.
That leaves the critters falling through the cracks among regulators, said Michael Potter, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky and one of the country's bedbug experts.
"Most health departments say, 'Hey, we don't deal with bedbugs,' " Potter said.
Those who've suffered outbreaks say that the anxiety it induces can be debilitating. Potter said many sufferers tossed out furniture and could spend thousands of dollars on repeated treatments from pesticide companies. They call him about anxiety, insomnia, shame and the incessant annoyance of itchy red welts on their skin.
"They're, like, ready to blow their brains out," Potter said. "It's emotionally distressing. Anyone that has never had a bedbug problem is not one to judge whether we're dealing with a medical, emotional public health issue."
In Congress, Butterfield first introduced his bill a year ago after hearing from a constituent who'd brought bedbugs into her home from a hotel trip. The bill died in committee last year, but Butterfield aides say they hope that higher attention will help the measure this year.
The co-sponsors include Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, Ben Chandler, D-Ky., Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., Betty McCollum, D-Minn., Corrine Brown, D-Fla., Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., Brad Miller, D-N.C., and Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas.
Butterfield also has received support from the National Pest Management Association, which says that bedbug calls to pest control companies are up 70 percent in the past five years.
Greg Baumann, a Raleigh, N.C., pest control expert and the vice president of technical services for the National Pest Management Association, said that a decade ago few pest control companies dealt routinely with bedbugs.
"Now it's everyone today," he said.
Baumann said companies could use pesticides on the bugs but that they also tried such alternatives as extreme heat, freezing and isolating the insects through mattress covers.
Since the EPA restricted the use of several effective pesticides in the 1980s, bedbugs have built resistance to the chemicals that now are on the market, said Potter, the University of Kentucky entomologist. Public education is important, he said, but the industry also needs a good insecticide.
"Whether that bill is going to solve the problem — certainly it's a start," he said.
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