Des Moines' bed bug issue is uncovered
By Jared Curtis and Amber Williams
Sheila Barnes is 81 and lives alone - or at least she thought she did. One
morning in June 2010, she woke up in her Des Moines apartment clawing at her
own skin with an unstoppable urge to itch.
When Barnes flipped on her lights, she discovered blistering boils covering her arms and legs. That's when she - like 293 others in the Des Moines metro last year - discovered she was sleeping with bed bugs.
" When I found out what the problem was, I complained to the building manager right away, and he didn't believe it was bed bugs - like I'm senile or something, or a liar," Barnes huffed. "When I showed him the paperwork from my doctor, he got upset at me and said I must have brought them into the building. He wanted me to pay for the extermination!"
Barnes' downtown apartment building, Prairie Field Manor, closed last summer after the infestation drove all 38 tenants out. Building Manager Bob Slummes eventually admitted that the building was infested with bed bugs but gave no apologies for blaming Barnes for the problem.
" She was the first one to have them, so they must have come from her," Slummes said. "I don't know what kinds of places the woman hangs out, but wherever it is, she brought her bugs back with her, and now all those people are out of a home, and I'm out a job."
Prairie Field Manor was one of several buildings that encountered a bed bug
infestation last year in Des Moines. Now they're back, this time in full force,
taking the Polk County Employment and Activism Agency (EAA) and the Des Moines
House of Human Affairs (HHA) buildings as their latest victims.
" It was one thing to have them infesting apartment buildings downtown, but now that they're attacking people at their places of work in our government buildings. We're realizing this is a growing nuisance and a matter of public health and safety," said Polk County Public Health Director Terry Tenkels.
Tenkels said the Polk County Public Health Department has already begun taking action against the spreading infestation. A year-long fight against the insects in 2010 afforded his department some experience in arming against the latest plague.
Last year, the department thought it had won the battle with the implementation of more modern pest control techniques after "traditional chemicals alone failed to work," according to Chad Borkin, pest control expert with Best Pest Control in Ankeny.
" Insects are one of the fastest-evolving creatures in the word," Borkin said. "Over the years, we've seen it with cockroaches, mosquitoes, head lice, and others. The traditional chemicals fail to work after the insect breed has built a tolerance against it."
Almost exactly one year ago, Borkin and his crews started spraying and disinfecting residential units at Prairie Field Manor, as well as Chicanery Country Club on Army Post Road. Residents from both complexes were showing up at health clinics with diagnosed bed bug bite marks speckling their bodies.
" They're sore and really itchy and irritating," said Amanda Pocky, a former Chicanery Country Club resident. "It was hard to sleep at night - not just because of the irritating scabs all over my back and legs, but because I didn't want to lay back down in my bed. Actually, I didn't even stay in my apartment for two months before I eventually moved to the north side."
Pocky said she's sleeping better now, especially after winning a lawsuit against the owner of her former apartment building.
" I used that money to buy a Temper-Pedic and a vat of skin cream. And a few cartons of smokes, but don't print that," she said.
But employees at the EAA and at HHA have fewer choices when it comes to protecting themselves against bed bugs.
" It's not like we can just stop coming to work," said HHA staff member Emily Ackers. "If I did, I'd lose my job, and I'd end up begging for handouts on the other side of this counter, just like the people I see in line here every day."
HHA was forced to close in order to eradicate the problem but re-opened in early January seemingly bug free, according to Linda Satira, Des Moines HHA spokesperson.
But this latest outbreak has administrators asking, "How did the bugs get here?"
Neither the HHA nor the EAA includes residential housing in the buildings.
So how does a "bed" bug infestation break out at a business that
closes nightly and is vacant of any sort of prey during the hours when the
blood-feeding insects supposedly go looking for dinner?
In the Polk County EAA's case in November, sabotage was the accusation. But public health inspectors who teamed up with pest control experts are certain HHA's outbreak was accidental.
" Some dirt bag from the unemployment line probably came in here with them crawling around in their clothes or something," said an irritated Satira, scratching at an apparent bug bite on her forearm. "Those people are lined up here for handouts every day of the week. You're not writing this down, are you?"
In fact, HHA sees about 5,000 clients every day, several of whom are likely to fit the demographic of those in bed bug-infested dwellings, Satira said.
Administrators at two Des Moines health clinics that have also been plagued by the pest agree that Satira's theory - though insensitive - is not at all unreasonable. In March, the Free-4-All Family Practice Medical Center, 2325 W. Nile Road, and Imslo Mental Health Clinic, 8494 Lost Way N., had to close specific units and call pest control. Like Satira and Akers, they also blame members of the public who come through the doors "already infested," according to Imslo marketing director Les Smarts.
" We keep a clean, sterile facility here, but we can't give everyone that comes looking for care a thorough body-cavity search to ensure they're not carrying parasites through our doors," Smarts said. "This has been an expensive problem that we'd obviously prefer to avoid. Closing down units for pest eradication means turning patients away who need care. This problem affects everyone."
All involved agree that this infestation has gone on for far too long, but experts are now saying the problem may have only just begun. The insurgence of bed bugs is predicted to increase with warming temperatures outside. In fact, pest control experts have discovered that heat not only stimulates the insects, but attracts them.
" When the chemicals were no longer effective, we began experimenting with different extermination techniques," Borkin said. "Bottom line - we're going to nuke them."
In January, Borkin and his team implemented a heating device called a Deet-Heat that draws the bed bugs out of hiding and into the machine that not only poisons the pests, but essentially nukes them like a microwave. The plan was to use the device to heat up the room, attract bed bugs to its incendiary core, "and then fry them," Borkin said.
" The little suckers pop like popcorn," Borkin laughed.
However, the otherwise effective technique back-fired at Prairie Field Manor last year, and Barnes' plight worsened as a result.
" I didn't even know they were starting it. I was in my bed sleeping, and it started getting really hot in my room," Barnes said. "I woke up in a sweat, and there were bugs crawling out of my hair and down my forehead! I could feel them coming out of my ear and racing through my eyebrows!"
Barnes said she fled the apartment screaming, slapping bugs off her arms and legs, which only added to the problem, according to Borkin.
" When they start to leave the crevices of your body, you've got to remain calm," Borkin advised. "Let them crawl off of you and toward the Deet-Heat. It's all part of the eradication process."
Borkin said Barnes' kneejerk reaction caused more bed bugs to fling into the hallway of the apartment complex, multiplying the infestation by thousands before the day was up.
" It took us two weeks to rid that entire building of bugs using the Deet-Heat, but we got them all. At least, I think so," Borkin said.
Although the Deet-Heat product worked in the beginning, officials found more
bugs hovering around the machines, rather than going inside for incineration.
After some studies, Borkin discovered that instead of going into the extreme
heat, the bedbugs were salivating outside as chemical radiation was released
from the machine. The bugs were catching their high without death. That's when
things went really wrong.
" At first it worked, but then it didn't," Borkin said. "We took a few of the bugs back to the lab, and that's when we knew we had a problem."
The radiation from Deet-Heat overwhelmed the bugs' bodies, and soon they began to grow. Within a few days, the inch-sized bugs began to expand, and within a few weeks, the bugs were too big for their containment cage. They were becoming aggressive and biting anything that came into contact.
" It was a bad scene before we put them down," Borkin said. "I had employees that were scared to come to work. We thought we had the problem solved, but actually we made it worse."
As the pest control experts transported the specimens to entomologists for tests in Minnesota, they came back with unexpected results.
" When they reached a certain size - I would say about the size of small dog -their pincers started falling off," said Dr. Jackie Meoff, a registered entomologist and a professor at Waseca (Minn.) Community College. "After some tests, we discovered the radiation was poisoning their pincers and causing them to literally rot off. It's good that we won't have massive bugs scurrying around attacking people with the pincers, although they can still bite."
But Dr. Meoff has a more grave concern than the bugs biting.
" When their pincers eventually fall off, it smells like, well, shit," he said. "I'd rather just have the damn things pinch me than have to smell that."
As local pest control officers worked overtime trying to destroy every last bed bug they could find, the local animal rights group Fighting Against Radical Termination (F.A.R.T.), wasn't having it. Members were collecting bugs and storing them in an abandoned facility south of downtown Des Moines.
" These bugs are breathing, living things and should be treated humanely," said Fonda Dix, president of F.A.R.T. "They can be easily captured and have caused us no harm. If they do need to be destroyed, there has to be a better way to do it than a bunch of pest guys walking around with clubs and bats, smashing them to death."
While F.A.R.T. continued its work, another group joined the cause.
" As the bugs lose their pincers, they become more docile and even friendly," said Debbie Stevens, spokesperson for the Iowa Bug Rescue League (BRL). "We've been training them, and they have become very loving. We have some that can sit and stay, as well as a couple who are already playing fetch. These bugs are easy to house train, and you won't find a better cuddle buddy anywhere. It gives the name 'bed bugs' whole new meaning."
The two organizations quietly joined forces to help introduce bed bugs as household pets.
" These bugs are just like any other pet - you have to feed them, bathe them and take them out for exercise, especially the exercise because they get a little wound up without a walk," Stevens said. "We encourage everyone to have the bugs' teeth removed and spayed or neutered before they take them home."
However, when a handful of homeowners took the bugs in as pets, things started going wrong. One bug owner had to be taken into quarantine for tests and later died. Officials would not release the victim's name.
" A woman was brought to us by a local hospital with complaints of abominable pain," said Dr. Meoff. "We did an X-ray and found that she had a bug growing inside her."
Meoff said the woman admitted to doctors that she bought the bug from an unlicensed pet owner after her cat had passed away. Living on a limited income, she claimed she did not have the funds to buy another dog or cat, so she chose a bug. She unknowingly bought an unneutered species, and it wasn't long before she became emotionally attached to it, even going so far as letting it sleep at the foot of her bed, according to doctors.
" She thought she was just having erotic dreams, not being penetrated by a bed bug," Dr. Meoff said. "It was awful. We tried to do everything we could to comfort her. But when the bug was ready to be born, it was chaos."
Dr. Meoff describes a scene straight from the 1986 motion picture "The Fly."
" Within an hour, the woman and her bug baby were both dead. We thought we could save the baby, but it died quickly after birth," he said. "The bug ate her from the inside out."
Although this is the only incident on record, Borkin is certain additional cases have gone unreported.
" I told these people that this was a bad idea from the start, but those bug rights people are tough. And I'm pretty sure under the guise of being politically correct, they led this poor woman to her doom," Borkin said. "I'm guessing people heard about this and are hiding. Obviously a woman died, but that was the first time. Like anything, people and bugs will adapt over time, and we are heading down a slippery slope."
Meanwhile, the bugs are still out there, available as pets.
" Forget how all the animal lovers are whining about rights and freedoms; we need to kill them all," Borkin said. "I don't want to be overrun by bugs."
" There are always problems that pop up over pet ownership, but this woman who died obtained a bug illegally, without all the proper shots and vaccinations," she said. "I can assure you, as long as you properly care for your bug, you'll live a happy and full life together. I think they could eventually replace dogs as man's best friend."
For people who have been bitten, turning bed bugs into pets is the last thing they'd like to see happen.
" Bed bugs for pets? Baloney!" Barnes said. "F.A.R.T can kiss my bed bug-bitten butt. Nuke them all, I say." APRIL FOOLS
Pest control expert, Chad Borkin, with Best Pest Control of Ankeny, attempts to use traditional chemicals to eradicate the bed bug problem in Des Moines but says the insects are growing immune. Special to Cityview
Dr. Jackie Meoff says bed bugs have a deadly potential. He's an expert entomologist at a Waseca, Minn. animal laboratory. Special to Cityview
Amanda Pocky was one apartment-dwelling victim of the Des Moines bed bug infestation
last year. This was a photo taken by her boyfriend with a cell phone one morning
when she woke up. Special to Cityview