WASHINGTON – The biggest bedbug outbreak since World War II has sent a collective shudder among apartment dwellers, college students and business travelers across the nation.
The bugs – reddish brown, flat and about the size of a grain of rice – suck human blood. They resist many pesticides and spread quickly in certain mattress-heavy buildings, such as hotels, dormitories and apartment complexes.
Two shelters have closed temporarily in Charlotte, N.C., because of bedbugs, and countless bedbug blogs provide forums for news, tips and commiseration. State inspectors say that more emphasis may be needed to tackle the creatures.
Federal officials have taken notice of the resurgence. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency held its first-ever bedbug summit, and now a North Carolina congressman wants to take on the insect.
Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield just introduced legislation that would authorize $50 million that’s already in the Department of Commerce budget to train health inspectors how to recognize signs of the insects.
The Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite Act of 2009 also would require public housing agencies to submit bedbug inspection plans to the federal government, add bedbugs to a rodent and cockroach program in the Department of Health and Human Services, and require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research bedbugs’ impact on public mental health.
Butterfield’s letter to congressional colleagues about the legislation attracted lots of attention: It was topped with a full-color picture of the insect sitting on human skin.
Bedbugs have hit hotels and homes in every state. The creatures easily travel in suitcases, boxes or packages. They can live for up to a year without food.
Apparently no state has a central reporting system for bedbugs, according to Butterfield’s office, and since the bug carries no known diseases, many health departments don’t consider it a public health threat.
That leaves the critters falling through the cracks among regulators, said Michael Potter, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky and one of the country’s bedbug experts.
Those who have suffered outbreaks say that the anxiety it induces can be debilitating. Potter said many sufferers tossed out furniture and could spend thousands of dollars on repeated treatments from pesticide companies. They call him about anxiety, insomnia, shame and the incessant annoyance of itchy red welts on their skin.
In Congress, Butterfield first introduced his bill a year ago after hearing from a constituent who had brought bedbugs home from a hotel trip. Butterfield aides hope higher attention will help the measure this year.
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