it's a horror movie come to life - creatures that wait for you to sleep, then feast on your blood. But some of us may already be sharing our homes with them. Indeed, bedbugs are spreading across the city from hotel rooms, college dorms and homeless shelters. They get around by hitching a ride in clothing or luggage. Science hasn't documented any diseases spread by these small, dark, round bloodsucking critters. But they're thought to be related to a Central and South American insect that spreads Chagas disease, which leads to massive heart failure.
The major problem currently seen with bedbug bites is allergic reactions to their saliva; severe itching and scratching can lead to secondary infections.
Spraying with pesticides to rid yourself of the pests can add to your personal toxic load. The safest way to purge your space is to wash and seal all the cracks in walls and furniture where they can hide, wash your bedding in hot water, have your mattresses steam cleaned or replaced, and make your bed inaccessible to crawling creatures by putting smooth metal cups or petroleum jelly on its legs. Generally, wooden beds carry more risk.
Of course, like any symptom, bedbugs have their instructive side. They tend to thrive in crowded, unsanitary conditions. Their growing numbers can be seen as a wake-up call to the immune system of our body politic.
For more info, go to: www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/homepest/bedbugs.htm
"Bedbugs are indicating outwardly, symbolically, the need for unification of masses of people. There are definitely many groups, creatures and beings we (our society) sweep under the bed. Bedbugs in hotels target the people who have the most status and wealth, who need to learn how to be grateful. Bedbugs wouldn't be an irritant if there were more concern over making sure that everybody was being taken care of. Have you considered that the bedbugs have more constructive things to do than to bite people? They're doing that to get your attention, but they'd rather be doing other things."
ROCHELLE GAI RODNEY, animal communication specialist, Toronto, channelling the Bedbug Deva
"If someone has an insect that they want identified, the ROM will identify it to the best of our abilities. Contact Antonia Guidotti at 416-586-5765. We haven't had that many inquiries in previous years about bedbugs; we've noticed a slight increase recently."
DOUGLAS CURRIE, curator of entomology, Royal Ontario Museum
"There have been no documented cases of any infectious diseases transmitted by bedbugs. There is a possibility of secondary infection, and it can be quite psychologically distressing if you have insects hiding in your home that come out at night and bite you. (We advocate) an integrated pest management approach that includes pesticides and environmental controls. Spraying alone means you might kill a certain percentage, but those in their hiding places might continue to come out and cause problems."
KARL KABASELE, MD, associate medical officer of health, Toronto public health
"Bringing bedbugs home is a big problem (for travellers). Look for bugs before you put your money down. A warning sign is blood spots or fecal smears on sheets, mattresses or pillowcases. Bedbugs are about a quarter-inch long and like cracks and crevices. Check creases in the mattress, just under the edge of the mattress and between the mattress and the headboard or the wall. They also hide in cracks in the bed frame or box spring. If you realize that you've slept with bedbugs, it's a good idea before walking in your front door to check everything for bugs and put clothes in big plastic bags and wash them. Do everything you can to make sure your suitcase is bug-free."
Jenny Pegg, editor, Let's Go Guidebooks, Cambridge, MA
"Bedbugs aren't well studied. People tend to focus on things that cause disease or affect agriculture. Nobody knows of any diseases that they transmit. There is a theoretical risk if they're biting many people. They're reasonably susceptible to insecticides. Some of the insecticides used for bedbugs have low toxicity for humans. Quite frankly, I don't like the idea of any insect being a world traveller, because of their unknown potential for bringing diseases here that we don't have any immunity to."
PATRICIA ROMANS , geneticist, department of zoology, U of T
"Lindane seems to be one of the most common pesticides used to kill bedbugs. It can affect the way our bodies develop, so it's incredibly dangerous for children, and we know it's a possible human carcinogen. I don't know that you're going to find an alternative that gives you that same instant effect. Non-toxic controls are really about preventing access in the first place. We would love to see the city of Toronto look as hard as it can at alternatives to pesticides, and to ask the powers that be to provide funding to implement those alternatives."
KATRINA MILLER, spokesperson, Toronto Environmental Alliance, pesticide reduction campaign
"In overcrowded settings you'll get a problem with parasites. We see people whose bodies are being consumed, with sores all over. In the 1800s Toronto had cholera epidemics. As long as they were confined to poor neighbourhoods, little was done. Cholera became a major concern only when it started spreading to wealthier areas. I know of several people who work in shelters or support agencies who've brought bedbugs home. A significant potential for spreading that infestation to the general population exists when a system that caters to thousands of people is infected."
JOHN CLARKE, organizer with Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Toronto