Plattsburgh Housing: Only high heat can kill bedbugs

Infestation left Lucille Wilkins sleepless, ill and stressed as she awaited her apartment’s decontamination

Wearing protective suits, Plattsburgh Housing Authority maintenance workers remove bagged personal belongings from an apartment at the Robert S. Long Apartments on Oak Street as they prepare to handle a bedbug infestation in two apartments there. (Photo provided — Kayla Breen, Press-Republican)

PLATTSBURGH — Lucille Wilkins pulled back her bedspread, and there they were – on the white sheet.

“I saw those little things going round and round,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh, my God.'”

The 92-year-old Plattsburgh woman had never dealt with bedbugs before but she’d seen them once. And recognizing them now, she understood the awful itching she’d been experiencing.

“I want to cry, but …” she said on Tuesday as her furniture and bagged belongings were carried out of her third-floor unit at Robert S. Long Apartments on Oak Street.

Best practices

On average, bedbugs invade six to eight apartments a year across the Plattsburgh Housing Authorities buildings, Executive Director Mark Hamilton said.

About three years ago, the authority worked closely with U.S. Housing and Urban Development, some pest control firms and Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Stop Pests in Housing Project, he said, to develop a protocol following industry practice to eradicate the pests.

“We went through all the best practices,” Hamilton said.

“The only real 100 percent guaranteed way to get rid of bedbugs is heat treatment.”

The Housing Authority, he said, created a policy, spent thousands of dollars on the needed equipment and trained staff to both inspect for and eliminate the parasites.

‘Grow, grow, grow’

It’s never a pleasant process.

For Mrs. Wilkins, it meant a number of days — and nights — living in a bedbug-infested home.

“It took seven days before anyone came,” her son Doug Wilkins said. “She ain’t slept more than two hours in five days; she’s throwing up.”

“Nerves,” his mother explained that last reaction.

Doug believes the Housing Authority has perpetuated the problem by not properly killing the bugs during past infestations; his research, he said, showed chemicals have to be used.

And he thinks heat treatment in one unit just makes them flee to the next one.

“When they started putting the heat to (the next-door unit), she started getting them more.”

Mrs. Wilkins agreed.

“In the slack time in between, they had time to grow, grow, grow,” she said.

Preparation time

Hamilton said the Housing Authority was made aware of the situation at both apartments on July 3, but then they were closed for the July 4 holiday.

And it takes time to prepare for treatment, he said.

“We have to empty the units of all items and bag clothes to be put in a drier or a heat tent,” he explained.

The apartment where the bedbugs originated was far worse than Mrs. Wilkins’s, Hamilton said, and so they had to treat that one first.

Preparations began July 5, he said.

“We could not have acted any sooner.”

Emptied out

Last weekend, some family members worked seven hours clearing out what they could from Mrs. Wilkins’s apartment.

“Probably $3,000 worth of Beanie Babies,” Doug said, noting they had to throw away many other items, too – “they leave eggs on the contents.”

“I’ve lost everything,” his mother said. “They took my bed already.”

“It’s not the maintenance guys’ fault,” she added.

Heats up so fast

To kill the bugs, the Housing Authority cranks the heat to 130 degrees and keep it there for at least three hours.

Staff moves a dozen or so thermometers from place to place to make sure every inch of the unit reaches and stays at the required temperature.

Chemicals aren’t the answer, Hamilton said, and, in fact, can push the tiny invaders into other spaces.

At 90 degrees, he explained, a bedbug becomes lethargic at 120 degrees the pests start to die.

The system used by the Housing Authority, he said, “heats the unit so fast the bugs don’t have the opportunity to get out.”

Once the heat treatment is over, the windows are opened and the unit aired to cool down.

And the tenant can return within the same day.

Inspections

Working with the United Way of the Adirondack Region, the Housing Authority has had some new mattresses donated to replace the infested ones.

“We’ll get bedbug covers for their mattresses,” Hamilton said.

Bedbugs earned their name, for that’s where they tend to first make their home to feed off human hosts. So mattresses tend to harbor most of them.

The Housing Authority can cleanse other furniture, such as couches and chairs, of the bugs, but some people feel squeamish about keeping furnishings that previously were infested.

So the authority will connect with other organizations to help replace them; sometimes, businesses help out, Hamilton said.

There is no charge to tenants for the extermination, he added.

And once completed, an inspection is done weekly for a month, every other week for another month and then monthly.

They do try to deal with bedbugs as quickly as possible, Hamilton said, “with as little inconvenience to our residents as possible.”

Unknown source

Where do the bedbugs come from?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Hamilton said.

They don’t jump, but they find their way onto clothing, perhaps items picked up at a garage sale, he said.

“You can visit a friend or family member” and take them home.

Epidemic

In the early 1900s bedbugs were “incredibly common,” to the point that travelers checked for them as a matter of course and even brought along insecticide just in case, University of Kentucky entomologist Michael Potter told USA Today in a 2017 article.

But powerful bug-killing concoctions appeared to have wiped most of them out – until, Potter said, 2010 or so.

Since then, an epidemic of the parasites has spread through the United States. Anyone is vulnerable.

Potter’s three-point theory about the return of the bugs, he told USA Today, included the banning of insecticides that once killed them, the fact that people travel more, and that the pests have grown resistant to modern insecticides.

Flooded apartment

Hamilton said bedbugs are far easier to eradicate in smaller numbers, so he encourages Plattsburgh Housing tenants not to hesitate to ask for an inspection.

“Even if they so much as think they see some,” he said.

In 2011, Mrs. Wilkins suffered severe flooding in her apartment as high winds helped torrential rain from Tropical Storm Irene find its way into the building through windows and other means.

She estimated a $1,500 loss of rugs, clothing and other items, not to mention important paperwork and irreplaceable family photographs.

But the bedbugs, Mrs. Wilkins said — “this one struck me worse.”

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