Friday, November 12, 2010

Bed bugs are the #1 Issue in Our Industry Right Now

This first appeared in the fall 2010 issue of the Ohio Pest Management Association's quarterly newsletter, The Standard.

Here’s what our members are saying

By Michelle Crawley

You don’t need to be a pest management professional (PMP) to know that bed bugs are the hot topic in the industry right now. The public is slowly becoming aware that they are a real problem, after seeing many stories in national and local newspapers, in Time magazine, on the nightly news, on national television shows like “The Doctors,” “Doctor Oz” and “The Today Show” – all of them talking about how to identify and prevent these pests. And just a glance at this quarter’s OPMA Standard newsletter shows we’re all about bed bugs.

We know that the only way to rid your household or business of these pests is to call a licensed PMP, so we talked to some of our own member companies to get their take on their experience with the pest, including: Hank Althaus of Scherzinger Corporation in Cincinnati, Steve Kmetz of Certified Pest Control in Cleveland, Lonnie Alonso of Columbus Pet Control, and Andrew Christman of Ohio Exterminating Company in Columbus.

In this issue of The Standard you’ll find the NPMA’s summary of their industry bed bug survey  but here, closer to home, is what our four members had to say. . .

Becoming “A Fact of Life”

One thing that is for certain – and was mentioned by all – is that the bed bug problem is growing, and we have to get control and kill this pest. Up until 2003-2005, many of our PMP’s had never encountered a bed bug. They were common in the 1930s and ‘40s, but then largely forgotten. As Althaus said, “I have been in this business for 30 years and had never seen a bed bug until 2005, even having been in the navy and traveling around the world.”

It’s evident that bed bugs have taken most by surprise, especially the general public who thought that they were just part of a saying, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” No one actually thought there really were bed bugs to worry about. People had either forgotten or didn’t realize they had been a problem decades ago.

But the expansion of this pest has gotten out of control. The Time magazine article said that Ohio was ground zero for bed bugs. But is it really? Some think the publicity we’ve given on the subject has helped the state be perceived as #1. Many find it hard to believe that we could have more bed bugs than New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles. Christman says he doesn’t think we have more bed bugs than others – though we’re definitely top on the list. We certainly have a resistant strand and that is hard to kill. In addition, there is increased travel, more immigration and lack of once-available/more effective insecticides contributing to the problem, both here and around the globe.

“Cincinnati is one of the top cities because it is so transient,” says Kmetz. He and Althaus theorize that having an international airport, being on the river, having two major interstates going through town with lots of commerce, and a migrant worker population that can be found in the agriculture and horse farming industries also contributes to the growing problem. Cleveland is similar with the presence of the Cleveland clinic and its international visitors.

A lot of the recognition Ohio gets has to do with the public shock over the resurgence of the insect. And the work by the OPMA, OPARR, Ohio Department of Agriculture and others at the state and national level working on Ohio’s Section 18 request to EPA for use of Propoxur has also triggered a lot of media attention - building Ohio’s bed bug profile. “There are a host of things that have contributed to the public perception that Ohio is ground zero for bed bugs,” says Althaus.

“I think that the bed bug population is spreading so quickly that even if we are #1, I don’t think we will be for long,” says Alonso. “The thin line about who has the most bed bugs is getting blurred right now as they move across the country.”

The bottom line is that we live in a mobile society, and these little hitch hikers have lots of opportunities to spread. So much so, that Christman says that as things stand now they are “going to become a fact of life,” much like they were in the ‘30s and ‘40s. “Even with product efficacy, the bed bug problem is not going away anytime soon.”

The New Termite

Everyone agrees that the bed bugs are found everywhere. “Bed bug service is the new termite,” says Althaus. “We are on pace to do well over 1,100 bed bug jobs this year, compared to 2005 when we did two. It has escalated dramatically.”

They are being found anywhere the public goes – schools, hotels, dormitories, health-care facilities, movie theatres, stores, libraries, multi-family and residential homes.

“I’ve been surprised at how many single family dwellings we’ve serviced, particularly this year,” says Althaus. “In past years, it was focused mostly on multi-family housing and university dorms. This year, probably 50 percent of our business or more has been in single family residential environments, across all socio-economic strata. We’re not just in one type of neighborhood. Bed bugs are getting more deeply penetrated into the residential community.”

Christman has also seen them everywhere. “We’re getting the commercial accounts now – we’re talking freestanding commercial buildings – in healthcare, general retail, warehouses, doctor and dentist offices, etc. It seems like things have exponentially increased in the last three and a half years.”

Alonso says the pest has especially been a curse on the lower income areas where they have less means to treat them. Like the others we talked to, he, too, had not experienced calls for bed bugs until 2003. “Now the overwhelming majority of our work is bed bug related,” he says.

Kmetz agrees. “A few years ago we had zero cases of bed bugs. Over the last few months, 30 percent of our business is bed bug related.”

No magic wand

The methods of treating bed bugs are as diverse as the populations served. And everyone has an opinion about what works best. One thing is for sure, everyone agrees that bed bugs are tough to treat. And it’s labor intensive.

“A majority of the costs to treat bed bugs are from labor, not the product or method itself,” says Christman. “You have to send out two technicians to deal with the bulky furniture like sofas, hide-a-way beds, king size beds, etc.

“The fact is we need products that work faster. It’s tough to tell people that it’s going to take two to three treatments, over several weeks or months before they can get rid of the problem. They want it gone today.”

Alonso says that, “until you kill the bed bug or physically remove it, it will feed or reproduce. Everything we do has to be guided by killing this pest.”

At Scherzinger, Althaus offers two programs for treating bed bugs: chemical and heat. “We use conventional pesticides and are very detailed and thorough. We’ll penetrate cracks and crevices including furniture. There is a lot prep work for that service. Our minimum program is four services over an eight week period (and that’s on a mild infestation). Many programs extend beyond that. But you don’t go into a one-bedroom apartment and walk out in five minutes like you do treating for other general pests. You need to plan on being there for a few hours or longer, depending on the infestation. You cannot afford to miss anything.”

In March, Scherzinger got their first heat trailer, and has since bought two more. “We keep those busy and that method is easiest on the consumer. The nice thing about heat is that it kills all life stages of bedbugs. It is a one-time service and has a lot less preparation than the chemical treatment – for example, you may have to open your drawers, but not empty them. The downside, however, is that there is no residual. So you need to be very sure you identify the source of the problem so they are not reintroduced. Heat is also expensive. The equipment is a high capital expense and it’s an all day, two-man job. It makes it difficult for lower income clients to avail themselves to this and for owners of multifamily buildings to build that kind of expense into their economies.”

At Certified Pest Control, Kmetz uses canines for inspection and he treats with strictly heat (120+ degrees Fahrenheit). He says that his customers like the fact that there is less aggravation and preparation for when using heat. While he is not convinced that we should bring back products used years ago, he concedes that, “right now there is no magic wand. We need to give everyone more effective tools in the toolbox. And we qualified professionals to apply and treat for this pest.”

“If a thorough treatment is done and the client cooperates with all of the necessary preparation that is needed, you are going to get control,” says Christman. “But it matters how thorough the treatment is and how well the occupant prepared. There are products on the market that are working well.”

Alonso uses traditional pesticides. “The reality is that the bed bug population has expanded, and we need to control it as quickly as we can, and we need a product with residual effect. One of the real problems is that the bed bug populations are being transferred. We can eliminate an initial infestation, but need to impact further infestation. So we always use products that provide residual control.”

Alonso points out that “while everyone has their own niche and beliefs as to what works, the bottom line is that it boils down to what the customer can afford and what they are willing to accept. There is room for many treatments. The customer will choose the option, method/technology and pricing that is best for them.”

Kmetz agrees and points out that what the customer will choose will be based on success.

Althaus says that from what he hears, there is not a lot out there in the pipeline to treat these pests. “There is no magic wand in the works. There are a lot of economies involved in bringing a product to market these days and getting it through the regulatory process takes a lot of time and money.”


Kmetz and Althaus point out that we need a chemical that can be sold to the general public that has desirable effect. Of course the big danger is that people try home remedies or products not labeled or produced for a residential setting. There have been many horror stories of people purchasing something at a lawn and garden or feed store that is intended for agricultural use and they’ve taken it inside and caused serious, unintended consequences. This is especially the case when people cannot afford the professional treatments.

“Many people say the public cannot control bedbugs on their own,” says Alonso. “My theory is different. I say, not only can they, but they better get involved. Many people cannot afford professional treatment, so as an industry we should realize that people will do things themselves, whether we or the EPA tells them they can or cannot. I think we can help them by getting them better products and explaining to them how to correctly do the treatment, rather than tell them they cannot. There’s a whole contingent of people who are DIYers with many things, let alone on an expensive procedure like bedbug control. At Columbus Pest Control we probably sell more product to the public than we perform services. And you have to realize our office is in a lower income area. Customers come in and we explain how to use the product and show them pictures, posters and pamphlets. I feel we’re doing a valuable service to our community by selling them product and giving them proper instruction. Rather than having them going somewhere else and buy something that will not control bed bugs, we think it’s better to point people in the right direction.”

Althaus says, “At the end of the day we need effective chemistry - something that is affordable across all socioeconomic strata to get ahead of the problem. If folks are not going to get services from a professional or have access to an effective product, they will use things that were not intended for bed bug control and end up causing more harm than good.”

Alonso says that there are many methods to try and, instead of shooting arrows at each other in the industry, we should realize that there are different options that ultimately the client will choose what is right for them.

Kmetz points out that despite the options out there, there will always be a majority of the population that has bed bugs and doesn’t care, or just lives with them. That may be due to where they come from and what they are used to, where they are living or the fact that they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. “They won’t be taking precautions to prevent the spread of bed bugs, and that in itself is a huge problem that is really taking a toll on apartment managers. And when you are in a condo or apartment there is no ‘majority rules’ way of dealing with them. One person can try heat, but someone else may use something that spreads them around to others again.”

Althaus adds, “Sometimes people don’t report them for fear of eviction or deportation.” The fact is that many scenarios can play into how these bugs spread in a multifamily environment. We need to consider this in our approaches.”


We all know about Ohio’s Section 18 request for the use of Propoxur and the fact that the emergency exemption has not been granted. This continues to cause uproar in our industry.

“I am sure that (USEPA) would like to see an alternative product made available that they can embrace,” says Althaus. “While they have broadened the label on some products in the market, those products have not been as effective as Propoxur. It’s frustrating that we have research, such as from Mike Potter in Lexington, which clearly demonstrates that Propoxur is the superior molecule available to kill all life stages of this target pest and this request is not being granted. The idea that we have products that can take care of this pest, which is growing exponentially year to year, and that we have the professionals with the know-how to go out and take care of this pest, but we’re unwilling to give them the tool to do it strikes me as tragic.”

Alonso was featured in a CBS national news story about the bed bug problem, and he mentioned Propoxur in the story and the difficulty finding it these days. “I don’t know of any data anywhere that shows that the use of Propoxur is problematic. This is a product that has been used since the early ‘60s. Yet the EPA says it is dangerous. I’ve offered to let (USEPA) come to Columbus and set up their equipment where we are doing treatments so that they can get real-world data, but they refuse and keep claiming the product is dangerous. It’s unbelievable that they are turning a blind eye on what people are doing to control bed bugs and are slamming a product like Propoxur.

“One of the problems we are having is trying to understand the EPA. They talk about integrated pest management procedures like vacuuming and encasing your mattresses – and all that is well and good, but it doesn’t kill a bed bug. Bed bugs are breeding and we need to do something to reverse the trend. We need to kill them.”

“We need a chemical that we can sell to the public that has effect,” agrees Kmetz.

Education – does it help or hurt?

Because of the many stories out there about bed bugs, the general public is becoming aware that it’s a problem. But does all of this awareness educate the public or cause panic?

“Both,” says Christman. “At first, we desperately needed to educate the public. But now so much of the publicity has caused panic. I lot of the calls I receive are from people just wanting us to do an inspection to tell them if they have bed bugs or not. We’re getting more and more of those types of calls.”

“There’s no doubt that the public needs to be educated,” says Alonso. “But they are confused. They don’t know a lot about bed bugs because it’s a new phenomenon to many people. There’s also a lot of bad information out there and people selling remedies that don’t work. Unfortunately it takes time and money for the consumer to determine what tool is best.”

“People don’t care about this problem until it happens to them,” says Kmetz. “You can educate all you want, but until people get bed bugs, they don’t always pay attention.”

Althaus acknowledges that educating the pubic is important in that they understand the nature of the beast to help them prevent infestation of their homes, but, as far as educating the public, he says, “The only way I’ve ever seen knowledge kill a bug is if someone used the book they were reading to kill it!

“Still, I don’t want to belittle education. And certainly we need to educate PMP’s, but I think that, by and large, the industry does a good job nationally and at state levels in educating PMP’s about controlling pests. Is there a place for education? Yes, without question. But it doesn’t kill insects unless it’s in the hands and minds of a pest management professional that is there to provide a control service. The general public knowing a lot about the insect isn’t going to kill the bed bugs, and it doesn’t matter what level of precaution you take, you always run the risk that you’ll get a hitchhiker on you that gets introduced into your home and is the genesis of a problem at your property.”

Emotional stress

Kmetz points out that one of the things people don’t realize until they get bed bugs is the emotional toll that having them takes on a family. There is the embarrassment of having them, the stress and fear of having them bite their family, being afraid to sleep in one’s bed, and the work that goes along with getting rid of them. Kmetz had one client call off the wedding with his fiancée after seeing how poorly she handled the situation of having bed bugs, which were found in their apartment just one week before their wedding.

Bridezilla aside, he says from the PMP perspective, “(Killing bed bugs) is the most rewarding service I’ve ever provided to people. We take them from utter chaos back to reality. They are so happy to be able to peacefully sleep in their own beds again.”

How can the OPMA help?

“It’s important to link people with good companies and to advise them to contact a professional. Right now, it’s not a do-it-yourself kind of job,” says Kmetz.

“The more voices that are raised – especially with the OPMA and OPARR members and leadership, the better,” says Althaus. “Many members have been generous with their time in getting with legislators and regulators engaging in dialogues with a broad range of agencies, or serving on task forces and going to meetings with representatives from EPA. There is no lack of activity on this level. There are many voices asking for help and for solutions. But from a political perspective, at the state and federal level, we need to make our voices heard about what we’re willing to accept and what we’re NOT wiling to accept. Start contributing to a PAC fund at the state level and support candidates that support our industry. Be engaged in the political process. Help to encourage those people that are supporting our efforts.”

Alonso agrees – “Keep going to meetings and being involved.”

Christman points out that in the near future the OPMA will be putting on a lot of training geared toward bed bugs and bed bug control. “Our members can’t be trained enough on the proper treatments, what to expect from your customers and what they expect from you. We will also have a separate training on how to prevent them.”

Christman mentioned a web site that he and others have voluntarily put together with information on bed bugs – you can find it at

Bottom Line

Christman says that we need the right combination of product efficacy, proper preparation and education so that people can recognize the problem quickly and get it under control.

Althaus agrees, “We need to have a relatively safe, effective, economical product brought to market or made available to the market on a broad basis. And once the product is developed and delivered into the marketplace, there needs to be a concerted effort to educate the public on the proper way to use that product and to apply it in a manner that is going to be effective and to protect those that you want to protect from the bed bugs. It does no good to kill the people while trying to kill the bed bugs.”

Says, Alonso, “We started seeing the bed bugs and attacking them in 2003 with all of these different methods, ideas and actions and guess what? – The bed bug population is outpacing us. We’re not winning the war. It’s getting worse by the week, month and year, and they are spreading quickly throughout the country. And we have the USEPA dragging their feet. On behalf of the public, we need to kill bed bugs and kill them quick. This has gotten way out of control. We HAVE to get control.”

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