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More Offices See Bed Bug Infestations

Thursday, September 29, 2011

By Laura Petrecca, USA TODAY

Your abusive boss isn't the only vermin in the office.

Defying their reputation as a scourge of households, blood-sucking bed bugs are creeping into a growing number of cubicles, break rooms, and filing cabinets.

Nearly one in five exterminators have found bedbugs in office buildings in the U.S., according to a recent survey of extermination firms by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky. That compares with less than 1% in 2007.

"It's a national issue," says Ron Harrison of pest control firm Orkin. "Not all of us have to go to work and worry about it, but we all have to be sensitive to it."

Most cubicle dwellers and corner office executives are blissfully unaware of bug problems. And many wrongly think infestations take place only in the homes of unclean folks or in college dorms. But bedbugs can survive in a multitude of eek-evoking settings, such as offices, movie theaters, and libraries.

Concerned about the swelling number of infestations in New York City, publishing giant Time recently brought in bed bug-sniffing dogs. The canines found a few cases, which Time had treated two weeks ago.

The District Attorney's office in Brooklyn recently discovered that they had the critters, as well, and exterminated over a weekend.

The IRS had bedbugs in its offices in Philadelphia and Covington, Ky. It had exterminators into those offices and is still monitoring the situation.

Adding to physical problems — the bites of bedbugs can itch like crazy — is the mental anguish that comes with an infestation.

When word gets out that an office building has bedbugs, a kind of mass hysteria often occurs, followed by fierce finger-pointing about who's to blame for bringing them in.

Bedbug issues are "a complicated mess," says entomology professor Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky. "In my career — and I've dealt with just about every critter that bothers people — this is the most complex."

Commuting in

Once bedbugs settle into corporate digs, it's tough to get them out.

The apple-seed-size insects dine on human blood. They hide in crevices and are resilient to many insecticides. They can live for a year without feeding, and they replicate quickly. The offspring of two bedbugs that move into an office in September can produce more than 300 bugs and lay about 1,000 additional eggs by January, says Harrison.

They infiltrate the workplace through various routes, such as on the suitcases of frequent travelers or on the purses, laptop cases, and gym bags of employees who have infestations at home. They can also be brought in by office visitors, vendors, or maintenance staff.

"Bedbugs are hitchhikers; they travel with people and with items that travel with people," says National Pest Management Association spokeswoman Missy Henriksen.

As the parasites spread at hotels, hospitals, schools, and homes, it's natural that some workers will inadvertently transport them into the office, says Larry Pinto, co-author of the Bed Bug Handbook. And in a big office, there can be more than one carrier. "(Different) people can be bringing them in," he says.

Pest management firms have had a 57% increase in bedbug-related calls in the last five years, and an 81% increase since 2000, according to the survey. Nearly all the firms polled — 95% — said they've had to tackle a bedbug case in the last year.

Four out of every 10 treatments were in commercial buildings.

"It shouldn't be any surprise that it's on the rise in office buildings," says Potter, who is considered one of the top bedbug experts in the country. "If you look at where they show up, apartments, hotels, and (houses) are on the top of the food chain. But with time, they move into other places."

In one bizarre case this summer, custodians at the Argonne Armory municipal office building in Des Moines found a bag of bedbugs left on a hallway floor. Police have no idea who left the bag of bugs or why.

"It's a very odd case," says Sgt. Lori Lavorato. The investigation is still open. There are no suspects.

Infestations spreading

Putting aside the rare, rogue acts of a saboteur, pest control professionals have a few main theories about why the bugs are resurging in the U.S. They include increased travel, more immigration, and the bug's resiliency to pesticides.

In addition, the "denial/lack of incident reporting by tenants, workers, landlords, hotel or business management (and) universities," has exacerbated the problem, according to the survey.

The insects are especially troublesome in densely populated cities, where they can spread quickly. But smaller areas aren't immune.

"Cincinnati is awash in bedbugs, and Detroit is coming on strong," says Mark Sheperdigian, vice president of technical services at Troy, Mich.-based Rose Pest Solutions. "We even have some small towns here in Michigan that have way more troubles with bedbugs than they deserve."

Some ways they have an impact on the workplace:

  • Lawsuits and human resource woes. "Bedbug lawsuits are starting to grow like crazy," says Sheperdigian. Once the bugs start to spread, "You have other employees saying, 'I got bedbugs because you had them in the office, and I took them home.' "

Jane Clark, a Fox News Channel employee who claims she got bugs from the network's New York City newsroom, didn't sue her employer. But she did sue the building owner, management company, and other entities in May 2008 for unspecified damages.

The lawsuit says that Clark first began to get bites at work around the fall of 2007 and that the defendants were negligent in rectifying the situation.

Clark's lawyer, Alan Schnurman, says Clark was wrongly reassured by managers that the bug problem "had been taken care of," but she kept getting bitten. Fox parent company News Corp. is paying her worker's compensation, and the legal case is still pending. Clark couldn't be reached for comment.

Being proactive is the best way to keep such lawsuits at bay, Sheperdigian says. "If you have a policy and you are upfront, it's a lot harder to sue an employer."

  • Unwanted publicity. Global ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, which had a minor bedbug incident at its New York office last year, had those troubles posted on popular gossip site Gawker and ad industry blog AgencySpy.

Fears of incurring brand damage is what keep many firms from broaching the subject with employees, vendors, or customers.

"No one wants to be known as the company with bedbugs," says Glenn Waldorf, a director at Parsippany, N.J.-based Bell Environmental Services.

Even the folks at former president Bill Clinton's office in New York are mum on the bedbug topic. The Daily News reported that the New York City-based charity had exterminators in for bedbugs last year, but the office didn't respond to multiple USA TODAY requests for comment.

  • Physical and mental anguish for workers. Some victims have absolutely no reaction, while for others, the subsequent swelling and itching can be painful.

Even without an extreme physical reaction, bedbugs can be psychologically scarring, says Potter, with victims reporting depression, anxiety, paranoia, and stress. "Probably one of the most under-reported issues is the mental anguish that comes with having bedbugs," says NPMA's Henriksen

The bedbug situation was "very traumatic" for Fox's Clark, says Schnurman. When many folks think of bedbugs, they have a half-smile remembering the popular "good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite," rhyme, he says. "But when it hits home, it's horrible. It's absolutely horrible."

  • Widespread infestations. If caught early enough, the bug troubles can be contained in just a few cubicles. But if management doesn't spot a problem — or ignores bug sightings — the critters can eventually take over multiple floors of an office building.

"If you go to an apartment where there's an infestation, it'll typically be centered on the bed or by the couch. But in an office, it can be anywhere," says Pinto. "They start wandering down the cubicles and down the walls looking for food."

The nocturnal critters prefer late-night dining if evening-shift workers are around, but can adjust to daytime feeding if necessary, says NPMA's Henriksen: "They are in (a) search for the human blood meal, and they will find it any way they can."

Challenging to destroy

There can be indications that bedbugs have moved in, such as employees seeing the six-legged crawler or its black fecal matter. But usually, it takes a professional exterminator — and even a bedbug-sniffing dog — to unearth the full extent of the problem.

It often takes multiple treatments to completely quash an infestation.

"Their ability to survive is legendary," says Sheperdigian. "We don't have anything that works really well on them."

It took three fumigations and a heat treatment to get the situation under control at the Des Moines Armory. The total cost was $5,150.

Smaller offices often pay $5,000 to $10,000 for bedbug exterminations, while the price for larger offices can easily hit six figures, says Pinto.

Just to hire the keen-smelling canines to investigate a full floor at a large corporate office building could cost $1,000 to $5,000, says Bell Environmental Services' Waldorf.

Barry Beck, chief operating officer of New York City-based exterminator Assured Environments, says client requests for examinations and treatments of commercial buildings have skyrocketed.

Even after shelling out big bucks, it's almost impossible to know that every bug is dead. And if an unidentified worker has a large infestation at home — or if company business travelers stay at bedbug-ridden hotels — the critters will likely keep coming back.

"Until we find a magic bullet that deals with bedbugs, It's going to keep getting worse," Pinto says. "They'll keep popping up, and (exterminators) will keep knocking them down."

You can view the article on USAToday's website here.

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