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30 November 2023

New York's bed bug problem spreading to London

A file picture of Britain's Houses of Parliament, and the London Eye in central London. About 500 guests had to be evacuated following the blast at The Churchill Hyatt Regency hotel. (Reuters

By Reuters

Avoiding New York and boiling your suitcase might not be enough for Londoners to dodge the global bed bug pandemic - they're already here, probably in a hotel, house or cinema near you.

Apple seed-sized, flat, brownish bed bugs (also known as Cimicidae) were once rife all over the world but had been largely wiped out by the banned pesticide DDT. During the past few decades, like head lice, they have been mounting a comeback, pest control firms say.

Wrongly linked to poverty or poor hygiene, today's jet-setting bed bugs travel on all airline classes in luggage, aircraft seats and clothes to wherever people sleep or rest.

This week there were over 42,000 references to bed bugs on customer feedback travel website and pest control firm Rentokil Plc said there has been a 24 percent increase in bed bug jobs over the last year in Britain.

"Bed bugs are a worldwide and growing problem," Rentokil Technical Director Savvas Othon told Reuters. "People carry bed bugs unknowingly in clothes and bags..."

Pest controller Mark Astley said the problem in London encouraged him to switch careers from IT consultant and he has seen such a surge in demand that he has acquired a dog trained to sniff out bed bugs in order to speed detection.

Astley, whose Trust K9 canine scent detection company runs seminars on bed bug management for hoteliers, said the bugs hide in bed frames, headboards, skirting, wall and ceiling cracks, behind light switches and can drop on you from the ceiling.

But they don't like smooth surfaces so if you sleep in a hotel bath or keep your luggage there you might be all right.

Astley uses Lola, a two-year old Parson's Jack Russell terrier, to detect bugs and then pumps hot air into affected rooms, which kills live bugs and eggs within hours.

Bed bugs seem to trigger a more primal response of revulsion than fleas or head lice, although they are not disease carriers, perhaps because they feed when we are most vulnerable.

"Your inner, inner sanctum has been invaded by a pest which can eat 10 times its bodyweight in your blood when you're deeply asleep in the middle of the night," he said.

Lola will perform a relentless search for bed bugs on the command "find the bees," but even the average person can detect a serious infestation. It smells sweetish, like almonds, black spots like felt tip marker dots on furniture can also be a sign, as well as blood spots on bedding, carpets and walls.

"I saw an apartment this week where there were blood spots and bugs on the bed frame and against the wall and carpet it looked like someone had scattered thousands of Rice Krispies - pupae skins and bugs everywhere," Astley said. "I even saw them walking across the forehead of a man I was talking to."

Astley said that travellers who bring soft luggage abroad could tumble dry it on high heat for 20 minutes after a trip to kill bugs in the luggage, but it was still not easy to prevent being bitten abroad or avoid bringing the bugs home.

"I'd recently treated and swept a large central London hotel and as we walked through the lobby Lola alerted and started scratching at a departing guest's luggage."