Bedbugs in Hawaii

Think bedbugs haven’t hit Hawaii? Think again.
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Put largely out of mind since the 1950s, bedbugs have returned to our lives, with a vengeance. The creepy crawlers that survive off the blood of humans have made an aggressive comeback across the United States, infesting homes and even making an appearance in the basement of the Empire State Building in August.

Hawaii isn’t immune to the pest, either. Cliff Nakamura, branch manager for Orkin Commercial Services in Hawaii, says they’ve discovered bedbugs on Oahu, Kauai, Maui and the Big Island, in dormitories, medical facilities, hotels, motels, apartments, condos and single-family homes. “It’s an increasing situation,” says Nakamura. “In 2009, our requests for bedbug inspections and treatment doubled that of 2008.” This year, the company expects another 100-percent increase in requests.

Bedbugs practically vanished from the United States in the 1950s through the use of DDT and other pesticides. (The chemical was banned in 1972 for its effects on the environment and potential harm to humans.) The resurgence has been blamed on their resistance to many common pesticides, as well as increased international travel.

Bedbugs are excellent hitchhikers. They crawl inside personal belongings, such as luggage, and can travel on clothing, which means people bring them into their homes unknowingly. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the bloodsuckers tend to stay within eight feet of their host’s bed, and can live for several months without a meal. Although bedbugs can be seen with the naked eye, they’re able to tuck themselves into bed frames, mattresses, behind torn wallpaper, or in tiny cracks and crevices that easily accommodate their small, flat bodies. After you’re bitten, you may not know it; it can take 14 days for a bite mark to show up.

Since the pest isn’t known to transmit disease, the Hawaii State Department of Health doesn’t consider bedbugs a public-health risk. Bedbug infestations, however, are difficult to control. “Short of shutting down all domestic and international travel, conducting detailed searches of all luggage on all arrivals and departures, and reinstating the use of strong pesticides, there is no effective way to impede the spread of bedbug infestation,” says Rex Mitsunaga, chief of the department’s sanitation branch. If a bedbug problem is suspected in a business or facility regulated by the department, such as a food establishment or medical facility, Mitsunaga says his department conducts an inspection.

The topic isn’t a favorite with Hawaii’s hotel industry. Websites like the Bedbug Registry, a free public database of bedbug sightings in the United States and Canada, makes reports of bedbug experiences available. Maciej Ceglowski started the site in 2006, after being bitten in a San Francisco hotel. Although the posts are unverified, and can be submitted anonymously, the site has experienced an increase in traffic and posts by a factor of five in recent months, says Ceglowski. A search for hotels and apartment buildings in Hawaii reveals 24 reports, almost all on Oahu.

Charles Kelley, M.D., vice president of Outrigger Enterprises, says he has taken a proactive approach on the issue since the early ’90s: “We have the ability to find them and get rid of them way before they become an issue with our guests.” Their plan includes staff training and scheduled days when housekeeping conducts bedbug searches.

The perception that bedbugs can only be found in dirty places is a common myth. “Sanitation has no influence,” explains Nakamura. “They can be found in a one-star hotel or five-star hotel.” His advice if you have the critters? “Call a professional.”