Everyone has heard that bed bugs are on the rise, and there is no end in sight. These invasive parasites bring a host of serious complications, and the unfortunate truth is that many educational facility personnel are not recognizing the potential threat they are facing.
Educational facilities can present some of the most challenging safety and maintenance issues due to the intricate nature of their environment. Colleges and universities are designed by necessity to accommodate the needs of students, faculty, and others, and as a result, there are a host of areas that offer ideal harborage for bed bug infestations. Understanding what areas are at greatest risk and knowing how to establish an intervention strategy can be two invaluable capabilities for school facilities managers and administrators to have to minimize the potential for significant complications.
Education facilities as a prime target:
Schools are constantly faced with health-related issues. Head lice have always been a notorious challenge, aside from the germs and diseases transported by students on a daily basis. However, to understand the reality behind the bed bug threat, a close look at the typical educational facility environment is the best way to begin understanding the problem.
Educational facilities are different from other business or residence-type settings. For one thing, hundreds or thousands of students come and go through most of the hours of the day. Teachers, maintenance staff, nurses and medical staff, administrators, and more are on site, with each of them serving as a potential transporter of bed bugs from their homes, offices, or other locations.
Transporting bed bugs is the key issue because these blood-sucking parasites are notorious for their ability to "hitchhike" on people who become the unwitting contributors to an infestation.
To understand the reason, a quick look at the bed bug physical makeup can help.
Unlike some other pests that have suction-cup like coverings on the bottom of their "feet," bed bugs' feet are more like grappling hooks, which entomologists call "Tarsal Claws." Looking under a magnifying glass can show how they can use these "hooks" to crawl over rough or textured surfaces to get almost anywhere.
The root of the problem:
One of the most challenging realities is the lack of attention that is paid to the potential for infestations, or the unwillingness to take action. If there are no plans in place to watch for infestations, then the effect of any early warning system is drastically reduced because the people who don't raise an alert about the infestation let it gain a foothold and then grow. This is an issue. People assume it will happen to someone else first and are not prepared.
If, for example, staffers don't understand the implications of fecal stains, or the skins that are shed from the insects as they molt, then important signals are being missed. As a result, the problem goes on without recognition. One student might transport bed bugs to two others who, in turn, transport them to eight others and just like a virus, the infestation grows exponentially.
What's more, if early recognition is not being addressed, a further problem exists when someone who is not properly trained is conducting bed bug treatments. In one case in Florida, a school janitor actually purchased diesel fuel to use as an insecticide spray on beds and bed frames. As anyone might imagine, the potential for disaster in a case like this is enormous, not to mention the exposure to enormous liability suits.
Basically, the concept of having uninformed people making decisions is a worst-case scenario.
In an educational facility care setting where students typically are there for extended periods, the presence of a rash might be viewed as a bed abrasion or skin discoloration. In fact, this can well be the result of bed bug bites. While the insects are generally not known to be disease carriers, they can produce allergic reactions in people who are susceptible, a particular complication for the ill or elderly.
According to a recent report from the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, bed bug allergic reactions are often untreated and misdiagnosed. For most people, bed bug bites may appear only as mildly itchy red marks. But, those who are allergic can experience intense itching, swelling, redness, hives, and blisters that can lead to infection. And, considering the immense growth rate of bed bug infestations across the country, there is no place for complacency anymore when it comes to seeking them out.
The fact is, education facilities not only have numerous locations to attract bed bugs, but they present excellent environments for them to flourish. Dorms, locker rooms, libraries, and auditoriums – the list is substantial. And, bed bugs reproduce very rapidly, so once an infestation begins, even a small one, it is certain to grow. What's more, given their hitchhiking nature, if ignored they will quickly find their way to more of those perfect havens throughout a facility and its many rooms and buildings. In 2010, within the five Burroughs of New York City, there were 336 reports of bed bug problems in schools for the school year. This was triple the amount of reports coming from the prior school year.
The fact is, education facilities not only have numerous locations to attract bed bugs, but they present excellent environments for them to flourish.
An eradication process done by a professional pest management company will be very expensive to say the least. And, even more daunting is the fact that buildings, or sections of them, might need to be shut down and evacuated during the treatment process to allow time for the pesticide to dissipate.
And, if this were not enough, there also have been reports by school officials where there has been damage to classroom supplies such as books, office supplies and other such schooling materials where the bed bugs established colonies. Others reported that post-treatment, and after residue was found, great amounts of teaching materials had to be thrown away.
What can be done?
Helping to keep bed bugs from becoming a big problem begins with awareness and assuming a mindset focused on being proactive. Training staff to recognize the myriad of infestation risks that exist can motivate them to be more careful about what they bring into a facility.
"Monitoring for bed bugs is another critical step," says Kevin Keane, vice president of sales for pest control product manufacturer AP&G, Inc. "By definition, bed bug monitoring means putting a strategy in place to watch for the invading insects even before they arrive."
One of the newest developments in monitoring is a simple, cost-effective cardboard sheet that works as a "passive" device designed specifically for monitoring for bed bugs on a large scale as part of an inspection/prevention strategy. Key to its effectiveness is its design, which simulates the conditions that bed bugs consider "perfect harborage" — tight, dark tunneling, and rough woodsy material. Common examples of this are the small grooves one would find in corrugated boxes, mattress creases, and wood furniture. If bed bugs are nearby, they are drawn to the monitoring device and trapped in its patented dot-matrix adhesive. This system is designed to be one part of the overall strategy to combat and manage bed bugs. It can provide you with valuable information, such as where bed bugs may be harboring, and it can confirm beyond any doubt that bed bugs are present.
Putting this proactive step in place can produce specific benefits, including:
- Help determine when bed bugs arrive at the earliest possible time
- Enable corrective steps to be implemented to intervene in the spread of the infestation
- Limit treatments to areas specifically affected
- Reduce the amount of pesticide application to the lowest effective level
This is critical because early management means inhibiting the growth of the problem before it gains a solid foothold.
Aside from low-cost, passive monitoring devices, there are a selection of systems that utilize a battery and CO2 cartridge along with a chemical attractant. Other types of devices need to be plugged in to operate and yet another device uses chemical products to attract bugs and draw them to a pitfall trap. This is in the form of a 'ramp' on one side that is rough enough for bed bugs to crawl over, but includes a smooth surfaced, sharp drop-off on the other side that forces the bed bugs to slide into a container.
Regardless of the device used, the single best monitoring program is the physical inspection of the room – both on a daily basis by the building superintendent staff, and on a periodic basis where the headboard is removed, carpet is pulled back, and the mattress and box springs are inspected.
Bed bug infestations are not a trivial matter, and should be a concern for anyone involved in the management of education-oriented facilities. These parasites can be highly invasive and can cause health-related issues on a variety of levels. Training staff to help prevent inadvertent transportation of these insects can be a critical first line of defense, in addition to establishing a bed bug monitoring program to help detect the presence of these difficult pests at the earliest possible moment.
Paul Bello is an Entomologist at PJB Pest Management Consulting, LLC.