No. 7: Bedbugs

Like any good outbreak movie, this one starts in New York City. Imagine a montage of newscasters announcing that the Empire State Building, the United Nations, and Niketown have all been affected. Then heart-tugging shots of children as reporters announce that city schools are infested. Cut to a street with mattresses marked “Bedbugs. Do not take!” Reports roll in from other cities, describing bedbugs as a nationwide epidemic.

How did we get here? For more than 50 years, bedbugs were all but eradicated in the U.S. Then they returned, and exterminators, unprepared for the onslaught, had to go back as far as WWII for data on how to stop an infestation. The unwelcome houseguests can live up to a year without feeding, can hide in the tiniest of crevices, and take several pricey rounds of professional treatments to kill.

No one knows exactly why they are back now in such a big way, but theories include a boom in international travel (with the bugs hitching rides on planes and in hotel beds); the elimination of pesticides like DDT, banned in the ’70s; and bugs that have developed a resistance to the less dangerous chemicals currently approved by the EPA. Mix in a society where most of us had never seen a bedbug, and experts who are frantically relearning how to deal with the pests, and it’s easy to see how the problem has spread as quickly as it has.

In August, Manhattan earned the dubious distinction of being named the most infested city in America, followed by Philadelphia and Detroit. The city’s pest problem made one of David Letterman’s Top 10 Lists. City officials announced a $500,000 initiative to educate and inform residents about the bugs and to better coordinate efforts by city agencies.

The EPA, which held its first bedbug summit in 2009, continued its campaign to encourage approved chemicals and treatments and stop the misuse of dangerous banned pesticides sometimes used by those desperate for relief. The state of Ohio petitioned the EPA for an emergency exemption to use a specific restricted pesticide, but it was denied.

As the hysteria grows, so does the booming bedbug business. In addition to exterminators, there’s money to be made from bug-sniffing dogs and protective mattress and pillow covers. And yes, there’s even an app for that.

This movie isn’t over; we won’t see the credits rolling as the sun rises over a bedbug-free Manhattan skyline just yet. For now, the best we can do is educate ourselves on how to prevent an infestation and be careful, especially while travelling.

–Melissa O’Neil