Tampa shelter calls pest pros to put bite on bedbugs

TAMPA — They skulked into the North Tampa transitional home a couple of months ago — tiny, silent and thirsty for blood.

Bedbugs.

Yes, the creepy creatures that sparked a nationwide wave of disgust this summer after camping out in New York City seem to have cousins in our back yard.

On Tuesday morning, the bugs were evicted from New Beginnings of Tampa, 1404 E Chilkoot Ave., which provides temporary housing for veterans and others down on their luck. Last month, they were found between sheets at a James A. Haley VA Medical Center outpatient clinic.

Both facilities were fumigated — the only surefire way to kill the buggers, say pest control pros.

"We kept thinking we could handle it, but these bedbugs are strong, man. I've never seen anything like it," said New Beginnings Pastor Tom Atchison.

Atchison said a homeless man staying at one of the facility's shelters made the discovery about two months ago when he saw a weird-looking bug about the size of a pinto bean lying dead beneath his bed.

The man delivered the body to New Beginnings staff members, who Googled the flat little insect.

"Bedbug," the Internet told them.

Try sleeping tight after that.

Atchison dropped about $100 at Home Depot for chemical sprays and foggers. It seemed to work for a couple of weeks, but soon enough there was another sighting.

This time, Atchison went to a specialty pest control store and spent twice as much. The treatments worked again — and failed again.

When the bugs had spread over three buildings on the property, a total of 62,897 cubic feet, Atchison called Joe Mizell, owner of pest control company Green Environmental Services.

The pastor estimated he already had spent about $500 trying to eradicate the bugs, and wasn't eager to shell out more for tenting. A job that size could cost up to $6,000, he was told.

But Mizell told him not to worry. "I'm a veteran, too," Mizell said. And a Christian.

"I started making some phone calls," Mizell said.

He persuaded chemical company Dow AgroSciences to donate the fumigant gas and another pest control company, Emory Brantley & Sons Termite and Pest Control of Pinellas Park, to donate some of its time. In the end, Atchison had to pay less than $2,000 for supplies and some labor.

"We're just thankful," Atchison said. "It was beginning to be a real epidemic."

The 20 or so residents who moved out of the shelters while crews covered the buildings with blue-striped tents were relocated to other New Beginnings homes.

After the tents come down, likely sometime today, inspectors from the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation will visit the property to make sure all the bugs are gone, a spokeswoman said.

Atchison said New Beginnings will now wash every new resident's clothing and belongings before he or she enters any of the homes.

"All it takes is one," he said of the bugs. "We're going to have to be more careful."

Though the bedbug epidemic has recently made waves in the news, experts say the problem has been growing for years.

University of Florida entomologist Rudolf Scheffrahn said the bugs come over from Africa or Asia with travelers.

Like mosquitoes, they feed on our blood. But bedbugs don't spread disease, Scheffrahn said. They may cause skin irritation after taking a bite, but with the exception of rare cases, it's usually no big deal.

"People have this fear of bedbugs, even though all of us have been bitten by mosquitoes," Scheffrahn said. "I think it's the thought of something crawling on you while you're sleeping."

Uh, yeah.

Despite all the paranoia, Scheffrahn said, bedbugs don't spread or breed any faster than your average cockroach. It's just that while roaches camp out in the usual nooks and crannies, bedbugs spread out all over our stuff.

They don't live on skin like lice, but they move when we move, putting hotels or motels at risk.

Typical targeted pest control sprays don't usually hit all the bugs' hiding spots, Scheffrahn said. Hence the fumigation.

As for why bedbugs have reared their ugly little heads in America lately, nobody knows.

The bugs may have grown resistant to modern pest control chemicals, Scheffrahn said. Or perhaps the chemicals now authorized by the Environmental Protection Agency, which are less aggressive than poisons used in the past, aren't strong enough.

So what's the solution? Scheffrahn pauses.

"That's a good question," he said.

Night night.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or kwilmath@sptimes.com.

Tampa shelter calls pest pros to put bite on bedbugs 09/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 10:52pm]

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