Tiny, flat insects are scurrying around Alaska, hiding in furniture and sucking human blood at increasing rates, health officials say.
Bedbugs aren't so much a health hazard as they are a public nuisance, and their proliferation in recent years prompted the state Department of Health and Social Services to issue a bulletin Tuesday, alerting residents of their potential new roommates.
Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist, assured Alaskans that the bugs haven't just set up in the Last Frontier. The increase in these apple-seed-sized insects is happening worldwide, he said.
Health and pest control experts have some theories. More people are traveling in and out of the country, immigration rates have risen and some landlords just don't care, they said. Plus, bed bugs can latch onto a person, suddenly mobilize and then once at home in a new spot, they double in population every 16 days, the bulletin said.
"They're the ultimate hitchhikers," said Tony Barrett, the municipality's environmental health program manager. And, he said, they'll pretty much hang out, drink blood and lay eggs anywhere with a couch or a bed. "Bed bugs don't care if it's a four-star hotel or a no-star hotel," he said.
In Anchorage, the city logged 68 bed bug complaints in 2013, a decrease from the 84 in 2012. There was just one complaint in 2007 and 2008 combined, according to city data.
For Ken Perry, the general manager of Pied Piper Pest Control in Anchorage, the bugs have brought business. He has combatted bed bugs since 1987, but has only recently started to deal with them at high rates. He fields about five phone calls about bed bugs a day, he said.
"We've always done bed bug work," Perry said. "Maybe one a year or two a year, it's always been there. It's never completely disappeared. But then, we started seeing a huge increase in 2000, predominantly in the travel industry."
In 2013, Pied Piper Pest Control, with branches in Fairbanks and Juneau, sold more than $30,000 in retail products to fight bed bugs. "Up 1,000 percent from 2008," he said.
Both Perry and Barrett said they hear of more bed bug sightings in multi-family dwellings than in single-family homes.
In the case of infestations, Barrett said the municipality documents complaints, contacts landlords and tells them to take action. The city has written compliance letters, but never fined apartment owners, not wanting to shut down rented rooms in a housing-strapped city for a bug that doesn't transmit disease, he said.
Bed bug bites are initially painless and can turn into big, itchy welts. But some people don't develop welts at all even if they are carrying the bug, said the health department.
Tell-tale indicators of an infestation include finding molted exoskeletons, white eggs and eggshells about one millimeter in size and bed bug excrement, which looks like small rusty or reddish stains on bed sheets, the bulletin said.
Perry said he has seen the biggest problems in low-cost Anchorage hotels. "Some of our friends from the Bush stay in these cheaper hotels and end up taking (bed bugs) back out to the villages," he said. "They can't afford me to come out." So he ships what supplies he can and offers advice over the phone.
Reach Tegan Hanlon at email@example.com or 257-4589.
Got bed bugs?
Think you have a bed bug problem? The state health department says to do this:
First have the bed bug positively identified. This can be done by the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Office.
Once positively identified, nonchemical control steps include: eliminating clutter; heat treating or cold treating rooms and furniture; putting linens in a high-heat dryer cycle, vacuuming and steam cleaning; sealing floor and wall cracks; using bed bug traps and monitoring devices; encasing mattresses.
Before using chemical pesticides a person should consult with a licensed pest control professional, refer to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of registered bed bug products and use only indoor pesticides.
By TEGAN HANLON