SARANAC LAKE - "It's like our own personal hell."
That's how Kelly Hoffschneider described the bedbug problems she and her husband Mark, who live in Saranac Lake, have had to deal with over the past five years at the rental home they own in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge neighborhood.
"They keep coming back," Hoffschneider said. "Five years later we're still having problems with those little bastards. It's cost us thousands of dollars and lots and lots of time dealing with really unhappy tenants."
A bedbug ingests a blood meal from the arm of a human host.
(Photo — Piotr Naskrecki)
The Hoffschneiders are by no means alone. The resurgence of bedbugs in New York City over the past few years has caused anxiety for tenants, landlords and hotel owners, while generating plenty of business for pest control companies.
Bedbug issues have also surfaced in the Tri-Lakes, though it's nowhere near the scale of the problem being seen in the Big Apple, where confirmed bedbug infestations rose from just 84 in 2004 to more than 4,000 last year.
Local code enforcement officers and public health officers in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid say they have received a handful of bedbug complaints over the past year, but stressed that the issue doesn't appear to be widespread.
What do bedbugs look like?
A. Typically they are 1/4-inch long, oval, flat, have six legs and are reddish-brown.
What can bedbugs do to me?
A. The serious negative effects are more mental than physical, mainly stress and lost sleep. Bedbugs aren't known to transmit disease, but scratching bites can lead to infection.
Where do bedbugs live?
A. Most stay where people sleep, hiding near the bed, a couch or armchair - even cribs and playpens. They can hide in mattresses, bed frames, nearby furniture and cracks and crevices around the room. Bedbugs can travel along pipes and wires and can hide inside walls.
How can I avoid bedbugs when traveling?
A. Inspect your hotel room, focusing around the bed. Check the headboard, sheets, pillows, mattress and box spring. Look in and under the bedside table. Don't unpack clothes into drawers. Upon arriving home wash your travel clothes immediately and dry them in high heat.
For more information on bedbug issues, visit www.nysipm.cornell.edu.
"It doesn't seem to be a huge problem," said Jeremy Evans, the village of Saranac Lake's community development director.
"I'm not seeing a big wave of problems," said James Morganson, code enforcement officer for the village of Lake Placid and town of North Elba.
Fifty years ago, bedbugs were considered eradicated in the United States, largely because of the use of the now-banned pesticide DDT. Since 1995, however, there has been a resurgence of bedbug infestations in major cities across the country, which scientists have attributed to the bugs' increased resistance to pesticides and the growth of international travel.
While bedbugs haven't become a big concern locally, they are showing up where they hadn't been a problem before, or at least in the last two decades.
Ray Scollin, who has been the health officer for the village of Saranac Lake for the past 10 years, said his first case of bedbugs came in September of last year. Since then, Scollin said he has handled at least a half-dozen complaints from people saying they've seen or been bitten by bedbugs, mostly in houses and apartment buildings in the village.
Ed Randig, who has been a code enforcement officer in the Saranac Lake area since 1996, said he has never received any complaints about bedbug problems.
"Cockroaches, but never any bedbugs," he said. "It's kind of a new thing. I think it's because of the influx of new people coming into the area. My understanding is it started in Lake Placid before they started coming over here to Saranac Lake."
But Morganson said he has dealt with only a handful of bedbug complaints in Lake Placid apartment buildings over the past two years. Exterminators were brought in and those complaints turned out to be unfounded, he said. Morganson also said he's had no bedbug complaints from any local hotels or motels.
"We don't have a huge problem," he said. "Lake Placid does a pretty good job of keeping temporary residences, hotels and motels really nice and clean. And that solves the problem."
Dr. Woods McCahill, public health officer for the town of North Elba, said he handled one report of bedbugs in a local apartment building within the past six months, but hasn't received any other complaints.
Officials at the state Health Department's district office in Saranac Lake, which regulates hotels, motels and cabins in Essex, Franklin and Hamilton counties, also say they haven't seen a big influx of bedbug complaints.
"In the past year, our office has received three complaints from patrons regarding bedbug infestations at establishments that we regulate," district director Jules Callaghan said in an e-mail. "Operators have contacted us twice to let us know that they have detected bedbugs, and that a professional exterminator was hired to manage the problem."
The few bedbug issues there are in the Tri-Lakes appear to be just in Saranac Lake or Lake Placid. In Tupper Lake, village Code Enforcement Officer Pete Edwards said he has had no reports of any bedbug infestations.
Dealing with bedbugs
Once a bedbug complaint is received, Evans said the village requests that the property owner and the building's tenants come up with a plan for solving the problem, typically by hiring an exterminator.
"There's different companies out there and different ways of doing it," he said. "There's heat treatment, which uses heat to kill any existing bedbugs, and then there's pesticide treatments. If they do everything they're supposed to, it should take care of the problem."
But getting tenants and landlords on the same page to address the problem isn't always easy, Scollin said. While the landlord often bears the cost of ridding an apartment of bedbugs, tenants have to be careful not to keep the pests from being reintroduced, like by bringing infested furniture back into the home.
"If these two people don't work together it can't be fixed," Scollin said. "The landlord feels, 'If you don't work with me, then why would I spend that kind of money just to have you re-infest the home.' It gets ugly. We have one case that's probably going to result in civil action between the tenant and landlord."
Warren Barich, owner of Vermont-based ECOHEAT Thermal Sterilizing, said he has been called twice to eradicate a bedbug infestation at a house in Saranac Lake. ECOHEAT uses a pressurized heating system to kill bedbugs and other pests with 140-degree temperatures, a method that Barich said is 100 percent effective "as long as people are wary of how they brought them in to begin with."
"I did a lady's house up there and it was successful," he said. "The people were told not to bring things they took out back in. Evidently, almost a year later, they brought something back in, and they brought the bedbugs back in the place again. Now, I'm going back there in a few weeks."
Barich also said he was in Lake Placid two weeks ago to take care of a bedbug problem in an apartment building. But most of his work is in the New England states, he said.
"It is an epidemic," he said. "This is only getting worse day by day. Bedbugs are so chemical resistant that it doesn't work to do a chemical application. The most environmentally-friendly way to do this, and the most effective, is heat."
Hoffschneider said she and her husband have lost three tenants due to bedbug problems in their four-bedroom Brooklyn rental home, despite multiple pesticide treatments. They now suspect the bugs may be coming in through the walls from the attached house next door.
"The hard part is, you never really know for sure that they're gone until you sleep there," Hoffschneider said. "Mark was going down and sleeping on the floor in an empty apartment to see whether he would get bitten. They can live for a year and a half without a human host. They can live in the cracks of your floorboards, in tiny little crevices of walls, mattresses, clothing and anything upholstered."
Not a public health issue
Having never dealt with bedbugs before, Scollin, a registered nurse, turned to the state Health Department for guidance last month. He asked DOH to assist local health officers by coming up with an organized plan to address bedbug infestations, beginning with education of health officers around the state.
Scollin said he was surprised to hear the state's response, which came in a recent meeting with local Health Department officials.
"They said that they don't feel like it's a public health concern, therefore it should be considered a public health nuisance and handled by the Department of State under code enforcement," he said. "Based on their statement, I don't feel I have the authority to go in and investigate and try and abate the issue of bedbugs now. It needs to just be code enforcement."
State Health Department spokesman Peter Constantakes said the state is not getting involved in bedbug issues because the pests don't transmit disease.
"We know it's a nuisance for people, but if they don't transmit disease, we generally don't get involved," he said.
Callaghan said bedbug problems are more of a cleanliness and maintenance issue. He said concerned property owners should refer to information published online by Cornell Cooperative Extension's Integrated Pest Management Program.
"If the typical homeowner or landlord determines they have a bedbug infestation, they should read the reference materials available from the Cornell University website and hire a professional," he said.
Although Scollin said he no longer has the authority to investigate bedbug complaints, he said he will continue to advise the village.
Evans said village officials plan to be pro-active in dealing with the few bedbug issues that have come up so far.
"Because we've had these relatively recent issues, we're getting a pretty good idea of how we're going to handle them going forward," he said. "We're going to make sure things get fixed pretty quickly to try to avoid them from spreading. We don't want to give people too much time to fix it. By then, who knows where they're going to end up."
Adirondack Medical Center is also taking steps to try and avoid bedbug problems at its hospitals in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, and its nursing homes in Tupper Lake and Lake Placid, according to AMC spokesman Joe Riccio. He said patient rooms are cleaned daily by AMC's environmental services crew. After the patient or resident is discharged, a more thorough cleaning that includes a check of mattresses is conducted. AMC is also in the process of adopting a policy and procedures to deal with bedbug issues, should they come up.
"The focus is going to be on prevention, but certainly you want to be prepared if they are introduced into the facility," Riccio said.
To keep bedbugs at bay, Hoffschneider suggested local people who travel to other cities check the mattress in their hotel room for signs of bedbugs. She also says she's stopped buying upholstered furniture at thrift stores.
"I'm really cautious in hotels and about buying things secondhand," she said. "People have to be aware. I hope people are vigilant here before it becomes a huge problem."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.