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Pest Control Companies Turn Up The Heat On Bed Bugs

bedroom October 23, 2010

ST. LOUIS — Ten years ago, if pest control companies treated one home a year for bedbugs, it was unusual.

But recently, Joe Wells, a heat specialist and bed bug supervisor with Rottler Pest & Lawn Solutions in St. Louis, said he has treated as many as eight homes a week. He uses blasts of heat, hot enough to warm an Easter ham.

A resurgence of the bedbugs nationwide in recent months has become a bane and a boon: a bane for those who must live with the uninvited guests; a boon for those trained to get rid of them.

Fighting bedbug infestations generated $98 million in revenue in 2006 and more than $258 million last year, said Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association.

Eighteen months ago, Cambridge Engineering of Chesterfield, Mo., spun off a sister company, RxHeat, which markets high-power heating systems to pest control companies. Heat is used to kill bedbugs and several types of food-borne pests, including moths and grain beetles.

"Heat penetrates all the cracks and crevices, and that's where these guys live," said Marc Braun, president of RxHeat. "A person can't find them all, but heat finds them."

Recently, Rottler Pest & Lawn Solutions poked flexible black tubing, 18 inches in diameter, through windows of a Maryland Heights, Mo., apartment, blowing hot air. A half dozen industrial-size fans scattered on the floor circulated the heat like a convection oven.

An apartment upstairs contained the same equipment, the same heat.

Wells began checking digital thermometers that he had placed inside closets, drawers, mattresses, walls and a sofa. They were measuring temperatures of 120 degrees to 135 degrees. Bedbugs can't survive above 113 degrees.

"See that black stuff? That's their droppings," Wells said, pointing his flashlight at baseboards in the bedroom. "Here's a dead one right here." A rusty speck the size of an apple seed clung to a mattress leaning against a wall.

Widespread use of DDT all but eradicated bedbugs after World War II. But DDT was banned, and bedbugs remained prevalent in other parts of the world, including Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. An increase in travel in recent years, experts surmise, has contributed to their resurgence. The bugs also have developed a resistance to other once-effective pesticides.

Dr. Michelle Tarbox, a dermatologist with St. Louis University Care, has seen an increase in people with bedbug bites: a row of pink bumps with central red spots through which blood is sucked.

"They usually feed several times in a straight row," she said. "We call that breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Bedbugs don't transmit diseases or pose lasting health risks, but they can be itchy and painful in people who are allergic to their saliva. Antihistamines and steroids help with that. Getting rid of the hard-to-find bugs is another matter.

According to news reports, some people have grown so frustrated and desperate that they've used highly flammable lawn and garden chemicals indoors, and that has caused house fires.

In Ohio, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected a request to approve indoor use of Propoxur. The pesticide was banned for indoor use three years ago because it could be carcinogenic.

"One thing works this week, and the next week it might not," said Jeff Holper, co-owner of Holper's Pest & Animal Solutions in St. Louis.

Blue Chip Exterminating in Ballwin, Mo., uses chemicals in most cases because it costs less.

"If there are cluttered conditions with lots of books, magazines and mounds of clothes that can't be moved, that's when we recommend heat," said Jeff Phillips, owner of Blue Chip.

At the Maryland Heights apartment, the vinyl heating ducts snaked up to the windows from a trailer behind the building. An industrial-size furnace hummed inside the trailer. Wells kept the temperature toasty for several hours inside the apartments.

Wells took a glass vial containing bedbugs from his truck. They're for a dog trainer who wants to teach dogs to sniff them out, he said.

That's another burgeoning business. So are covers that encase mattresses and box springs, and chemicals that can be sprayed on luggage to deter bedbugs.

RxHeat's technology is not new. It has marketed similar systems to cleaning and restoration companies to dry out buildings after floods.

Mike Rottler, owner of Rottler Pest & Lawn Control, bought the heat system from RxHeat for about $60,000. Treating a home with it typically costs clients $1,500 to $1,800. That's compared with $600 to $1,000 to use chemicals.

Henriksen, of the National Pest Management Association, doesn't recommend using heat over proven chemicals and says a combination of them is usually the best approach.

But Rottler said there are a lot of benefits to using heat, even if it does cost more. Clients can move back into their homes the same day and don't have to throw furniture away, he said. Chemical treatments usually have to be repeated two to three times within 30 days, during which the residence must be vacated. Infested furniture often must be discarded.

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