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Universities trying not to let bedbugs bite

July 1, 2008
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(Contra Costa Times) – June 22, 2008 -- College students beware: Don't let the bedbugs bite.

Universities and colleges nationwide are trying to figure out how to keep the biting insects out of dormitories - no easy task when it comes to creatures that can survive pesticides.

At this weekend's conference of university and college housing officers in Florida, two sessions deal with the pesky bugs, which also have boomed at hotels and major cities around the world. UC Berkeley residence halls had to be treated for bedbugs at least six times during the recently ended school year - up from no incidents the previous year.

After a half-century in relative obscurity, the bedbug is back.

"Bedbugs have not been a problem or a concern in our culture," said Jeff Urdahl, UC Berkeley's director of housing facilities. "It's not something people like to talk about."

Except that it seems as if everyone is talking about the tiny blood-suckers these days. Entomological conferences are abuzz with bedbug discussions and inundated by bedbug papers, attendees say, and housing directors are desperate to get rid of the persistent critters.

Bedbugs were common around the world for centuries. Widespread use of pesticides thinned them dramatically after World War II, but with the elimination of the more toxic chemicals, the insects are back.

And with students traveling internationally - or even across the hall - colleges are particularly susceptible, said Wayne Walker, who directs pest control in the University of Florida's dormitories.

"It can become a very big problem in a hurry because of the lifestyles of the students," said Walker, who is speaking about bedbugs at the Florida conference. "They visit other rooms, and sometimes stay the night in another room."

"Bedbugs are really terrific hitchhikers," he said. "It's really difficult to prevent them from coming home with you."

They're also remarkably hardy - think miniature cockroaches. Heat will kill them, but only if it's above 112 degrees; cold works, but only if the bugs are frozen for two weeks.

At UC Berkeley, exterminators have tried several tactics, including steam guns in the rooms and extreme cold on electronics and books.

"We go to great lengths to make sure we get rid of them," said Margaret Hurlbert, UC Berkeley's pest-management director.

"They can be in almost anything: coffee pots, shower curtains. It takes much longer to get rid of bedbugs than, say, fleas."

Six times longer than getting rid of fleas, she said. And the bedbug makes people uneasy, particularly because it's nocturnal, meaning people wake up with bites without ever seeing the insect that caused them.

"People don't like bedbugs because they're creepy," she said.

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