Don’t let it happen here

August 25, 2010

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BED BUGS are feasting on hapless sleepers, infesting department stores, and hitching rides in the suitcases of business travelers. New York City has been especially hard hit by the wingless, oval-shaped insects that feed exclusively on the blood of warm-blooded animals. So far, Boston is holding the line. But the real test is to come.

Moving day for college students in Boston is the bed bugs’ Saturnalia — a time of feasting and revelry for the crawlers that grow to a length of one-quarter inch. Discarded furniture and other household items line the sidewalks as apartments change hands in Allston, Mission Hill, and other neighborhoods with large student populations. But something could be lurking in the tufts of box springs and mattresses, curtain pleats, desks, and dressers. It’s always best to shun furniture freebies.

The good news is that bed bugs do not spread disease-causing germs. The bad news is that they can cause painful irritation and itching. And they are hard to eradicate, often requiring the application of insecticides by pest control specialists or special steam treatments. In extreme cases, residents are forced to leave their homes for weeks.

Boston is blessedly absent on a recent industry list of top 10 bed bug cities. It’s not by accident. After an outbreak of bed bugs about eight years ago, the city’s Inspectional Services Department increased its patrols in neighborhoods with high residential turnover. Inspectors deface furniture found on the streets to discourage pickers and call on public works crews for prompt removal. Inspectors are also quick to serve violation notices and clean-up orders to owners of infested buildings, according to Lisa Timberlake, spokeswoman for Boston’s Inspectional Services.

So far, the results are impressive. City officials have confirmed only 1,050 cases of bed bug infestation in Boston during the past five years. The economic downturn, however, could be a boon for bed bugs, which range in color from white to deep brown. Free furniture might prove more tempting for newcomers and returning students. And staffing is down at the nonprofit community development corporations that mount education campaigns about bed bugs.

Boston officials and residents need to keep up their guard or risk playing host to nocturnal parasites.

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