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Bedbugs, head lice make themselves at home on LI

Exterminator Jesse Scaravella inspects a child's mattress in

Exterminator Jesse Scaravella inspects a child's mattress in a Long Island home suspected of being infested with bedbugs. (Oct. 8, 2010) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

When bedbugs showed up at Nassau County's Department of Health and Social Services building earlier this year, employees were alarmed and their union demanded action.

Reddish brown and oval with a taste for human blood, the creatures made it difficult for some employees in the Uniondale complex to do their jobs. Bedbugs were seen crawling on desks and scurrying up walls.

Exterminators used state-of-the-art technology to freeze the pesticide-resistant bugs to death, said Jerry Laricchiuta, president of the Civil Service Employee Association Local 830.

That knockout punch in the spring was also a wake-up call to an epic bedbug resurgence Islandwide as elsewhere. And bedbugs are not alone. They're among billions of bugs of different species, including head lice, making a comeback. They're emerging, pesticide-resistant and difficult to suppress, finding new niches in which to flourish.

One Long Island exterminator says he averages three homes a day to rid them of bedbugs. Another says his calls have doubled in the past three years. Technicians have attacked the bugs at a dental practice where they infested a treatment chair, as well as retail clothing outlets, apartment complexes, and on Saturday, a library in Central Islip. The Nassau Department of Health has even established a BedBug Task Force to teach strategies to avoid the stubborn critters.

"Bedbugs have come back from zero," said Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an urban entomologist with Cornell University's Integrated Pest Management Program in Farmingdale.

The United States was one of the few countries, she said, in which bedbugs were defeated after World War II with DDT and malathion. Since 2000, the bugs have been hitchhiking back into the country on luggage, clothing and cargo, and are now resistant to DDT, malathion and a vast array of other pesticides.

Brian Matthews, director of environmental investigations in the Nassau County health department and a member of the BedBug Task Force, said the insects' presence is becoming so pervasive "I think we all will be dealing with it in the next few years."

Like bedbugs, which cause misery but don't carry disease, biting, bloodsucking head lice are also on an upswing, and while they never really disappeared, they're now hardier and harder to fight.

Both types of bugs, along with a host of others, have evolved genes that make them impervious to many of the pesticides designed to kill them. Bugs can evolve pesticide-resistant genes just as bacteria develop genes to repel antibiotics. "Insects always figure out a way to get around whatever [chemicals] we throw at them," said Mike Deutsch, an entomologist with Arrow Pest Control in Lynbrook.


Tougher than ever

Pesticide resistance occurs, scientists say, when insects are exposed to chemicals but not all bugs are killed. Misuse and overuse of the substances allow hardy, surviving insects to develop genes, permitting them to outfox the compounds.

A family of pesticides known as the pyrethroids - administered to fight lice and bedbugs - are proving increasingly difficult to use. Dr. Albert Yan, chief of dermatology at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, said research has shown that patients using standard instructions for pyrethroid-based louse treatments, in which products are left in the hair for 10 minutes before being washed out, killed only 5 percent to 7 percent of the insects.

Yet, nowhere in the kingdom of bugs has there been a resurgence more dramatic than that involving bedbugs. Once an earlier era's bedtime horror, their prevalence has been quietly growing nationwide in recent years, scientists say.

A study last year in the Journal of Medical Entomology revealed tough-to-control New York City bedbugs were up to 264 times more resistant to deltamethrin, a pyrethroid pesticide, than easier-to-control Florida bedbugs. When exposed to deltamethrin, New York City bedbugs remained unscathed.

All pyrethroid chemicals are neurotoxins to insects, designed to deal a lethal blow to their nervous system. But overexposure allowed New York City bedbugs to evolve a mutation permitting them to block the effects of the chemical. The gene for deltamethrin resistance is so widespread in the city that a majority of bugs there possess it.

Arthur Katz, owner of Knockout Pest Control in Uniondale, said calls about bedbugs have doubled in recent years and he now uses specially certified dogs to sniff out the creatures. "We have been using them for about a year-and-a-half," he said, adding that the animals' noses are so sensitive they're able to sniff out the nesting site of a single bedbug.

Technicians with Deutsch's company use steam heat in excess of 200 degrees to attack them. Katz's company uses below-zero technology to wipe them out. Nonchemical methods of attack are the only way around resistance, they say.


Head lice on the rise

In August, the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on School Health produced its first report on head lice since 2002. The updated document noted increasing patterns of resistance among lice to over-the-counter products designed to kill them and their eggs.

Although lice never disappeared in the United States, their prevalence was once so low - because of widespread DDT use until its 1972 ban - that many children growing up during the Baby Boom had no concept of head lice outbreaks.

"When I was growing up, you never heard of people getting head lice," said Rosemary Kelly, spokeswoman for the Entomological Society of America and a lice consultant to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Jeffrey Ellis, a dermatologist in Plainview, said there has been an uptick in infestations on the Island in the past several years. People, he noted, are coming up with creative ways to deal with the bugs. Hair salons that specialize in lice removal have opened locally, treating children and adults with nontoxic products and old-fashioned "nitpicking," combing out louse eggs - nits - one strand at a time.

"The average louse lives about 30 days and an adult lays five to ten eggs a day. So imagine what one louse can do to a person's head," said Kathy Zappulla, proprietor of DeLiceful in Hauppauge, who nitpicks and lectures on lice at Island schools.

"People who haven't experienced lice have no idea how big this problem is. I get calls from college kids who are infested," Zappulla added.

A closer look at some pesky pests





How do they invade homes?

They hitch rides on luggage, clothing and other belongings. Purchasing used furniture is another route.

Where do they hide?

Generally, in bed frames, mattresses, clutter, couches, upholstered chairs, etc.

Why are they attracted to beds?

As human parasites, they must be near their hosts. Bedbugs are attracted to a sleeper's body heat and exhaled carbon dioxide.

How do you avoid bedbugs?

In hotel rooms, always inspect them before unpacking, checking mattress seams, behind headboards and in couches and chairs; place luggage on a luggage rack instead of the floor or bed; hang clothes farthest from the bed. In dressing rooms, always hang clothes on a hook instead of on the seat or floor. In an office, keep clutter to a minimum.




Why do they live in hair?

Lice thrive on human blood; their bites cause itching. Eggs -- nits -- are laid close to the scalp because they require human warmth for incubation.

Who is most affected?

Children between the ages of 3 and 12. But parents and grandparents who cuddle affected children are susceptible.

How are lice transmitted?

Direct head or hair contact as well as sharing personal items with an infested person, such as athletic helmets or hats. Avoidance prevents spread.

How do you avoid head lice?

In camps and at schools, children can pass head lice to each other. They should avoid sharing hairbrushes, combs, hats, scarves and towels, and hang up clothing on individual hooks. Parents should regularly clean pillows, car seats and headphones.

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