A Dark And Itchy Night

A Dark And Itchy Night


Published: December 5, 2012 
The New York Times

READING in bed, once considered a relatively safe pastime, is now seen by some as a riskier proposition.

That’s because bedbugs have discovered a new way to hitchhike in and out of beds: library books. It turns out that tiny bedbugs and their eggs can hide in the spines of hardcover books. The bugs crawl out at night to feed, find a new home in a headboard, and soon readers are enjoying not only plot twists but post-bite welts.

As libraries are scrambling to deal with the problem, so are some book borrowers. Not wanting to spread the misery, considerate patrons sometimes call ahead to discuss with librarians how best to return lent materials from their bedbug-infested homes. Usually, a meeting is arranged so the patron can hand off the offending books or DVDs in Ziploc bags to an employee outside the library.

John Furman, the owner of Boot-a-Pest, a team of bedbug exterminators based on Long Island, said he has had hundreds of clients buy a portable heater called PackTite to kill bedbug life, baking any used or borrowed book as a preventive measure before taking it to bed.

But others have stopped borrowing books altogether. Each month, Angelica McAdoo, a jewelry designer, and her children used to bring home a stack of books from the Los Angeles Central Library — until Mrs. McAdoo heard that the library had had a bedbug scare in September. She had already battled bedbugs in her two-bedroom apartment in East Hollywood and hired an exterminator, who sprayed the perimeter of her bookshelves with pesticide, among other precautions.

For now, she is buying books at Target and is ambivalent about borrowing library books again. “I will not step foot in a library ever again — right now,” she said.

To reassure skittish patrons like Mrs. McAdoo, libraries are training circulation staff members to look for carcasses and live insects. Some employees treat suspect books with heat before re-shelving them, to kill bedbugs, which are about the size of an apple seed when fully grown. Others vacuum the crevices of couches, and some furniture is being reupholstered with vinyl or leatherette to make it less hospitable to insects.

As Michael Potter, a professor of entomology at University of Kentucky in Lexington, noted: “There’s no question in past few years there are more and more reports of bedbugs showing up in libraries.”

Pest-control experts say the bugs are increasingly moving from homes, dorms and other lodging to settings like retail stores, offices and libraries, migrating not only in book spines, but also on patrons or their belongings.

And some librarians are not only confronting the public relations challenges in their communities, but trying to get ahead of the problem rather than hiding its existence.

Forty-eight hours after a patron complained of being bitten by a bedbug in a lounge chair at a library in Wichita, Kan., Cynthia Berner Harris, the library’s director, brought in a bedbug-sniffing dog to pinpoint problem areas. Later, she heat-treated all of the furniture in public areas, in addition to removing the infested chairs.

She also bagged up hundreds of books, including the oeuvres of Twain and Updike, because they were close to where the dog suspected bedbugs. (They were decontaminated for two weeks in some 45 bags with a vapor pesticide.)

“We wanted to go that one step beyond for our assurance,” Ms. Berner Harris said, and “to tell our citizens we’d done our due diligence.”

Recently, 70 or so employees of the nine libraries in Wichita gathered for a “bedbug boot camp,” where Michele Vance, marketing director of Schendel Pest Services, showed them how to identify bedbug excrement, which resembles dots made by a black felt-tip pen. She also explained how quickly bedbugs multiply, and how they can live for months without biting humans.

Vigilance at circulation desks is key, she added: “If you notice any signs — the stains, the skins, the bugs themselves — notify your supervisor!”

EVEN before seeing a bedbug at the public library in Islip, N.Y., Mary Schubart, the library’s director, took action, after reading about their alarming resurgence. She hired a bedbug-sniffing dog to make quarterly visits, and put what are known as “insect inceptor” cups under furniture legs.

As Ms. Schubart joked, “Nothing says ‘Welcome’ like a bedbug cup under every chair.”

When people asked about the cups, she told them that checking for bedbugs was a routine part of the library’s maintenance. “People take comfort in that proactive way,” she said.

Other libraries are taking even more aggressive measures.

Twice in August, circulation desk employees at the University of Washington Libraries in Seattle saw insects crawling in returned books. Stephanie Lamson, head of preservation services, immediately put the books in Ziploc bags and banished them to Siberia-like decontamination for a week in a freezer in the natural history museum, at temperatures of minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Employees monitored the books for six days outside the freezer to see if anything was still alive, Ms. Lamson said. Then they spent another week in the deep-freeze. Ms. Lamson said she chose cold rather than heat because the latter can accelerate a book’s aging.

Within a week, she had hammered out a protocol for bedbugs and posted it on an internal Web site for her staff to review. Ms. Lamson has dealt with pests like silverfish, which eat the surface of pages, she said, but the bedbug has not been “our typical pest — until now.”

Sue Feir, the library director of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., alerted patrons about what she called the library’s “localized bed bug problem” in an e-mail blast that was also posted online.

After someone was bitten in a chair, Ms. Feir took the chair outside, ripped off the fabric underneath and found more bedbugs. She called Bliss Pest Protection Services, which put the library’s furniture in a trailer and heated it to 130 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour, a strategy she touted in her e-mail as the best way of “pulverizing their eggs.”

To calm patrons’ nerves, Ms. Feir was quick to reassure them that she hadn’t brought any castaways home. “And I sit everywhere,” she said. “It is random in some ways.”

Since 2010, the Brooklyn Public Library, which has 60 branches, has “inspected virtually every branch for reported sightings,” said Jason Carey, a spokesman, and “treated some branches for localized infestations,” although the public was only notified when the Brighton Beach branch was closed for three weeks in 2011. (As for the New York Public Library system, it has had fewer than 10 confirmed bedbug cases since 2010 in its 90 branches, a spokeswoman said.)

A common weapon in the war against bedbugs in libraries is the PackTite, which sells for about $300. Cincinnati, for example, has 48 for its 41 libraries.

The PackTite was designed to heat-treat luggage. But now, as David James, an owner of Nuvenco, the company that makes the PackTite, noted, “libraries across the country, we hear from them on a weekly basis.”

Another heat-treat box is the $180 ThermalStrike with infrared panels. For a couple of years, librarians have been e-mailing questions to Mike Lindsey, ThermalStrike’s inventor, he said, asking if book glue can withstand the 150-degree Fahrenheit heat (it can) and how long a pile of books has to cook to kill bedbugs (five hours).

UNTIL September, Kuang-Pei Tu, a manager in the circulation department of the Los Angeles Central Library, had not given much thought to bedbugs. Then Nicole Gustas, a regular who borrows three or four books a week, returned several in Ziploc bags, explaining that a bedbug had crawled out of a copy of “True Blood” while she was reading it. After Ms. Gustas complained to L.A. Weekly about the incident, Ms. Tu said she began doing cursory inspections for signs of bedbugs.

“I don’t feel very good about it,” she said. “It’s not something that can be avoided, and we are given a secure action plan if we do spot them.”

As for Ms. Gustas, she is reluctant to return to the library. “It makes me sad,” she said. “It’s kind of like going to the beach and seeing a shark next to you.”

Then again, she could just stick to low-traffic books, if she wants to be a cautious library-goer. After all, some books are more likely to harbor bedbugs than others, said Philip Koehler, a professor of entomology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla.

Best-sellers that have rested on many night tables are high-risk, he explained, as are hardcovers with spines where a female can lay eggs. “You probably don’t want to check out a popular book,” he said. “Maybe try old history books.”

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