The Perspective
FALL 2011

Nature’s hitchhikers wreak havoc

You found the perfect couch at a flea market, hauled it home and now you’re itching like crazy. It’s important to remember that when you buy used furniture, you might bring home more than you bargained for. Your purchase could have squatters… bed bugs.

While they may not make you sick, these microscopic pests can cause various physical health, mental health and economic consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are similar to head lice and are “a pest of significant public health importance.” Not only do they thrive on blood meals from humans, they can wreak havoc in their newfound home by multiplying furiously and refusing to leave.

“Bed bugs aren’t considered vectors,” explains Larry Rogers, senior environmental health specialist for the health district, “which means they don’t spread disease.” In fact, most people don’t feel the actual bite of bed bugs because they inject an analgesic (pain killer) and a blood thinner with each chomp.

While 60-80 percent of people won’t initially show signs of bites, eventually a person’s immune system detects proteins and reacts. Although bed bugs don’t spread illness, the itch from their bites can cause people to scratch and develop a secondary infection. Additionally, some people can have an allergic reaction to the bite.

Recently, bed bugs are having a resurgence worldwide due to more frequent international travel, resistance to insecticides or because DDT is no longer used. Whatever the reason, the pests are back.

Rogers warns that despite what their name implies bed bugs can be found in any soft or upholstered furniture, bed frames, headboards, box springs, drapes, behind wallpaper, under rugs, even under door frames. They don’t like light and hide themselves very well. Because of this, they are not usually visible to the naked eye and may be lurking in the seams of your second-hand leather ottoman or that irresistible damask armed chair you practically stole from your neighbor’s garage sale.

If you purchase used furniture of any kind, Rogers offers these tips:

  • Buy from a reputable source, like a reliable consignment or second-hand store.
  • Be especially diligent if you purchase upholstered items, headboards and bed frames.
  • Before bringing the new purchase inside your home, inspect it carefully with a bright flashlight. Check the seams and folds of all upholstered items, shine the light into all crevices, remove all drawers and inspect them thoroughly.
  • Look for any indicators of bed bugs:
    • Any live or dead bed bugs (they look like small black seeds)
    • Small dark spots, which indicate fecal spotting
    • Small white dots (eggs) in crevices of hard furniture
    • Skin casts

In durability, bed bugs rival cockroaches because they can withstand heat up to 110˚F. They can go four months without feeding when it’s warm and survive for more than a year without food in cold weather. “They have essentially evolved to live with us,” Rogers concludes.

Although we don’t know for certain whether less-than-perfectly-sanitized used furniture transmits diseases, it is possible under certain circumstances. Used mattresses can harbor communicable diseases through contact with bodily fluids, or fecal or oral matter from the previous owner; and they can also have dust mites or mold in the ticking and batting. Because of this, the health district began regulating the sale of used mattresses in 2007. Companies wishing to sell or refurbish used mattresses must meet stringent sanitation standards, as outlined in the “Regulations Governing the Sanitation and Safety of Used Mattresses, Bedding, and Upholstered Furniture.” At this time, no local companies are approved by the health district to do this. Therefore, it is illegal to sell and/or buy used mattresses in Southern Nevada.

Bed bugs can be difficult to eliminate once you have an infestation. The recommended course of action depends upon your specific situation. If you suspect an infestation, and you are a:

  • homeowner, contact a certified pest control company.

  • motel/hotel guest, contact the health district’s Vector Control office at (702) 759-0697. The health district has the regulatory authority to respond within 72 hours to inspect the room and any associated pest records. The facility is responsible for closing the room and treating it. However, if the facility is despondent, health district staff will intervene.

  • tenant, first contact your landlord in writing. A landlord has 14 days to provide a “habitable dwelling.” The health district has limited authority to respond to tenant complaints, and will only provide an abatement order when the issue has become a public nuisance.

Through its partnership with the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, the Southern Nevada Health District participates in the national Healthy Homes program, which addresses integrated pest management and provides bed bug education to homeowners. Additionally, health district staff is available to provide bed bug training to businesses for a nominal fee.

There is always a risk when purchasing anything second-hand. To minimize the risks associated with used furniture, take the necessary precaution of conducting a thorough inspection before bringing it into your home. Make sure your “new to you” furniture is clean, safe and free from any pesky freeloaders.

Diet Myth 3

The Southern Nevada Health District’s Environmental Health Division protects the community’s health and safety by regulating the sale of used mattresses, bedding and upholstered furniture, as well as responding to bed bug and other environmental complaints made by visitors and tenants. For more information about nature’s little hitchhikers, visit our Bed Bug webpage.

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