Hagerstown tries to stay ahead of nationwide pest problem
As Seen on Herald Mail Media
"Hagerstown is like numerous communities across the United States that have been battling increased cases of bed bugs — tiny, annoying, blood-sucking insects that hide under bed mattresses and other furniture and crawl out at night in search of their preferred victims: humans.
Bed bugs are also known as “great hitchhikers,” able to move from home to home by traveling in items such as luggage, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. And they are tough critters, capable of surviving up to a year without feeding, according to the EPA.
The Hagerstown Housing Authority, which provides housing at seven facilities and other sites, has reported increasing cases of bed bugs in its properties since 2007, when five cases were reported.
The authority saw a high of 217 cases in 2015 and last year reported 194 cases at its properties.
Among last year’s cases were 40 that were recorded at Walnut Towers, a two building high-rise along South Walnut Street that provides 150 units to elderly and disabled people.
Residents there talked about repeated efforts to eradicate bed bugs from their apartments, like the one Brian Little lives in.
Little said he notified authority officials when he found bed bugs in his apartment.
His apartment was treated, but he said the bugs returned about two months later.
Little said he suffers from anxiety and the infestation aggravated his condition.
“Just knowing that bugs are crawling over you at night,” he said. “I almost moved out the first month I moved in.”
Little said his apartment was exterminated a second time earlier this year and so far there has been no reoccurrence.
Hagerstown isn’t alone in it’s bed-bug battle.
The EPA’s website said there has been an increased rate of bed bugs in the U.S., which the agency believes is due to increased traveling, lack of knowledge about prevention and bed bugs’ increased resistance to pesticides.
The number of bed bug cases in Hagerstown Housing Authority properties jumped from 5 to 17 between 2007 and 2008. In 2009, the cases increased to 24, in 2010 they increased to 41 and in 2011, 76 cases were reported.
In 2012, 124 cases were reported, 151 occurred in 2013, and 112 were logged in 2014, according to the authority.
The peak number of 217 cases in 2015 occurred when the authority implemented a new defense system, which involved the authority regularly inspecting all its units, said Hagerstown Housing Authority Executive Director Sean Griffith.
Up until that point, authority officials depended on residents to tell them if they had a bed bug problem, Griffith said.
Griffith said bed bug cases peaked in 2015 because exterminators were finding more bed bugs.
“We are a proactive agency and we take this seriously,” Griffith said.
As of May 25, there have been 70 bed bug cases in the authority’s properties, he said. Griffith said he thinks that if the authority’s bed bug cases remain at that rate, there should be a continued decrease in cases.
A new weapon
Extreme heat kills bed bugs, an approach that has been relied on over the years as residents talked about washing clothes and drying them at high heat to kill the bugs.
Now the housing authority has a new weapon in the approach, Griffith said.
It’s a propane-gas powered machine that is used to super-heat apartments,
Griffith said. The machine raises the temperature in a unit to 130 degrees; the treatment sometimes lasts up to eight hours, Griffith said.
Bed bugs die when their body temperatures reach 113 degrees, according to the EPA.
Griffith said his agency is still experimenting with the machine, so it it too early to say whether it is the ultimate cure.
“Just like the rest of the world, we are waiting for that new miracle treatment that is hopefully on the horizon,” Griffith said.
In the meantime, the authority also relies on other traditional methods of killing bed bugs, which Griffith said can be trying for residents, especially the elderly.
Residents must launder all their clothes and dry them in high heat, Griffith said. Residents must then put their clothes outside, such as on a balcony, to prepare for treatment of apartments, Griffith said.
They also must pull furniture away from walls and empty all cabinets and drawers, Griffith said.
Griffith said bed bugs are a larger problem in high-rises because some people, especially the elderly, are not as responsive to the problem as authority members would like. But the authority will help people with the process, Griffith said.
Bugs on the go
The mobile nature of bed bugs was illustrated through one of Kristin B. Aleshire’s relatives.
Aleshire, a Hagerstown City Council member, said his uncle lived in Potomac Towers on West Baltimore Street about 15 years. Aleshire described him as “a single-guy, clean as could be.”
Then Aleshire said his uncle started dealing with a steady number of bed bug problems.
“He had to get moved out of his room four times,” said Aleshire, who added that his uncle finally moved out of Potomac Towers because of bed bugs.
“It’s such a highly mobile creature of infestation,” Aleshire said.
Griffith said he is familiar with the situation involving Aleshire’s uncle, but said he does not feel comfortable talking about individual cases.
Councilman Donald F. Munson said he used to be on the board of directors for the housing authority. While on the board, Munson said he recalled a “massive” effort to rid authority properties of bed bugs.
Munson said the problem often revolves around used furniture that is set out on area streets. The authority would make progress in exterminating an apartment, but residents would bring home used furniture infested with bed bugs and the problem would start over again, Munson said.
Griffith said bringing home used furniture is one of the biggest causes of bed bug infestations.
Aleshire said that in many cases, the furniture set outside is the result of evictions. Aleshire suggested that there be a concerted effort to address items being set out along streets.
“Otherwise, it’s going to keep escalating and we’re not going to get a handle on it,” said Aleshire, who believes used furniture being brought into Potomac Towers was causing his uncle’s bed bug problems.
Not just public housing
Munson said homes and private apartments in Hagerstown have also battled
bed bugs and North Avenue seemed to be a problematic area at one time.
Despite Hagerstown’s trouble with bed bugs, Aleshire and Munson said they do not know if the city’s situation is any worse than other communities.
Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused, or CASA, has had its share of bed bug challenges.
In 2013, the Hagerstown-based shelter for domestic abuse and sexual assault victims closed its doors because of a bed bug infestation.
All the carpets in the shelter had to be ripped out, and the shelter spent about $100,000 to make improvements such as installing tile floors, said executive director Vicki Sadehvandi.
Sadehvandi said the shelter has not had any more problems, and has instituted a rigorous intake process for anyone entering the center. For example, if clients go out during the day, they must take a shower, wash their hair and allow their clothes to be washed in a high-heat process when they return at the end of the day, Sadehvandi said.
“It’s difficult for my staff,” Sadehvandi said. “It really is a problem in our community. My heart goes out to the authority because it is really an expensive problem.”
Griffith said the housing authority is spending about $48,000 a year on bed bug eradication efforts.
Reach of Washington County, which operates a cold weather homeless shelter at Prospect and West Franklin streets, has not had much of a problem with bed bugs, said executive director Jodie Ostoich.
Occasionally people at the shelter will say they have been bit by bed bugs, but shelter officials believe the problem is often due to another location that clients go to during the day, Ostoich said.
If someone at the shelter complains about being bit, the person’s belongings are washed and the individual’s bed is sprayed, Ostoich said.
Ostoich said the shelter has “bed bug proof” mattresses, which are encased in a vinyl-like material to prevent infestations.
“We do routine spraying anyway,” said Ostoich, who added the shelter also arranges for a bed bug treatment when the shelter closes at the end of its season in April.
Several Walnut Towers residents talked about their battle with bed bugs outside the housing complex recently.
Robert Clipp said there was an infestation in his couch, and maintenance workers eventually came to his apartment, wrapped the couch, and took it away.
“It was the only way to get them out of my apartment,” Clipp said.
Little, the man who had two infestations, said bed bugs are an issue that is weighing on people’s minds at the high-rise.
“Everybody’s afraid to sit on benches. No one wants to lean against walls,” said Little.
Residents at Potomac Towers related their efforts to control bed bugs through special laundry cleaning processes and not letting others into their apartment.
Bed bugs are causing problems across the Tri-State area.
In Berkeley County, W.Va., authorities receive a lot of calls from residents in low-income units and apartment buildings who are dealing with bed bugs, said Jennifer Hutson, a sanitarian supervisor with the Berkeley County Health Department.
The health department does not intervene in those cases, but the department can stand as a witness that there is an infestation in a unit, Hutson said.
Bed bugs in Berkeley County have shown up in various buildings, including public buildings and motels, Hutson said.
If it is determined there is a bed bug infestation in a motel room, the health department will call for the room to be closed, Hutson said. The rooms on either side of the room are also closed until the affected room is treated, Hutson said.
“You basically put a box around it,” Hutson said.
While bed bugs have not been shown to transmit disease, they can cause a variety of physical, mental and economic consequences, according to the EPA.
Those effects include reaction to bug bites, which can range from bite marks to, in rare cases, anaphylaxis, which can result in a severe, whole-body reactions, the EPA said.
Secondary infections of the skin from bites can include impetigo and ecthyma, which are skin infections. They can also lead to lymphangitis, which is an inflammation of the lymphatic system, the EPA said."