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Bed Bugs on Your Commute? In Your Garage Sale Purchase? Stay Vigilant

Chicago ranked second last year for bed bug infestations. Experts attribute the rise to global travel; more garage sale and thrift store exchanges; and increased visits between homes and public spaces.

Bed bugs, according to their name, ought to be relegated to mattress pads and box springs. But alas, because there is a spike in bed bugs across the country, the opportunities to bring home the blood-sucking insects are increasingly prevalent on public transportation.

"They are transported through public transportation," said Curt Colwell, an etymologist at the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) in Springfield. "They move from buses to planes to trains to taxis. It's pretty common."

Bed bugs, which are about the size of a dog tick, are human pests that go through five stages of life and require human blood for each phase, according to Randy Allen, regional manager of Wil-Kil Pest Control, a pest management company that serves the Chicagoland area. The bugs, which bite humans in their sleep, have historically been found in or around beds, hence the name "bed bug."

"I know busses, trains, railcars and even airplanes have had some experience with the bed bug issue," said Allen. "Wherever people go there’s an opportunity for bed bugs."

In New York, bed bugs on subway benches have been in the news since 2008. However, the critters seem to be moving west. Chicago was named the No. 2 city in the country for bed bug infestation in 2011, following Cincinnati at No. 1.

In a discussion forum at bedbugger.com, one northside Chicago resident reported being bit on a CTA bus, writing that "during my 30 minute commute, 3 large, itchy welts in a row popped up on the back of my arm, which had been exposed to the seat." Another person from Northbrook responded, saying "I’ve been bitten repeatedly while on these trains and buses with identical effects as those which you listed. Like yourself, I never see them coming or going, for all practical intents and purposes they are invisible."

spokesman Michael Gillis said he was not aware of any complaints of bed bugs for Metra, which runs 700 trains daily in the Chicagoland region with about 150,000 passengers a day.

"Some cleaning is performed on each car each day, and seats are wiped down each day," said Gillis, who noted that the seats are all vinyl but did not know how old the seats are or how often they are reupholstered. "We get occassional compalints about cleanliness and send them on to [our] mechanical department."

The CTA media department did not respond to interview requests on the subject.

Economic Change Impacts Bug Infestations

IDPH's Colwell started noticing more bed bug calls in 2007, and said, "a good one-third of my calls each month are on bed bugs."

He chalks it up to an increase in global travel as well as a change in peoples' habits. Since the Great Recession, Colwell sees more mixing of household goods through garage sales, flea markets, alley-hunting and rental furniture.

"The most startling report I received was from a county health department employee who said that he and his wife went on an airline and when the got off, they realized they had red bumps on their legs," said Colwell. "They realized that they had been bitten by bed bugs on the airplane."

Allen, who has seen a 35 to 40 percent uptick in calls, agreed on the role of travel but noted a change from hotels to peoples' homes.

"We initially found bed bugs in hospitality, and that’s transformed to multi-unit dwellings such as condos or apartments, where people are visiting each other," he said. "We thought the increase was because of travel but it’s basically people just moving around [public places], like someone having an infestation and going to the movies."

How to Prevent Bed Bugs

Since 1929, Wil-Kil Pest Control, based in Madison, Wis., has operated as a regional pest management company and suggested that around spring break travel times, bed bug issues can spike "as the bugs cling to clothes and hide in luggage."

The company offers the following tips:

  • "Do not place suitcases on hotel floors or the hotel bed
  • Check hotel bed sheets and mattress seams for unusual blood spots or black fecal matter upon arriving
  • Carry a small flashlight to assist with quick visual inspections
  • Inspect suitcases after returning home from vacation for any signs of bed bugs before entering your house
  • Upon returning home place all your clothes from your suitcase into the dryer on high heat for at least 20 minutes"

In addition, IDPH's Curt Colwell said the most important thing is to be aware of your surroundings. "Bed bugs are quickly picked up between households, so don't pick up couches or mattresses off the street ... and anything you bring into your home you should give a thorough inspection with a flashlight."

For those who commute often, Colwell suggested wearing light colored clothing without too many folds, making it easier to spot the insects.

"It’s not one of those pests that is preventable," said Allen. "Bed bugs are completely reactionary."

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