PORTLAND — Deirdre Strout was about to inspect an apartment for bedbugs Monday afternoon when a woman who was passing by saw Strout’s Atlantic Pest Solutions van, stopped the car and jumped out.

The woman, bags under her eyes from lack of sleep, pleaded with Strout to help her get rid of her own bedbug infestation.

It’s like that all day, Strout said. “It’s crazy.” And, she said, “it’s growing.”

The resurgence of tiny, blood-sucking bedbugs has made headlines nationwide in recent months. That’s especially true in New York City, where bedbugs have infested numerous hotels, a couple of downtown movie theaters, stores such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret, and office buildings including the one occupied by former President Bill Clinton.

Maine hasn’t made the list of the nation’s buggiest places, but Portland and other Maine communities have their share of bedbugs.

“Portland’s got a heck of a pocket going,” said Ted St. Amand, president of Atlantic Pest Solutions in Kennebunkport.

Bedbugs have struck hotels and motels, hospitals, warehouses and at least one restaurant, said St. Amand and Strout. Most bedbug calls are now for homes, ranging from public housing to large estate homes.

Strout and her partner, a bedbug-sniffing beagle named Cassie, had 25 inspection appointments on Monday in Portland. It takes Cassie only a few minutes to zero in on the bugs, which are usually hidden in a mattress or a headboard.

“I have a lot,” said Vavilia Sanchez of Portland, pointing at faint bite marks on her arms and legs. “I’m so tired. There’s too many. I can’t sleep.”

Sanchez, who stopped to ask Strout for help, said she has been trying to get rid of the pests for months but they keep coming back. Now, her front yard is filled with the contents of her apartment, including plastic bags full of clothes, and she doesn’t know what to do next, she said. “Nothing kills it.”

Government officials don’t keep track of bedbug infestations in Maine. The bugs, while nuisances that are difficult and expensive to get rid of, aren’t considered a health threat.

“They don’t carry diseases, best as we can tell. We don’t have a good monitoring system for bedbugs,” said Stephen Sears, an epidemiologist for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Are we hearing about it? Absolutely.”

Bedbugs have become an expensive headache for landlords in the past five years, said Mark Adelson, deputy director of the Portland Housing Authority.

Adelson’s agency manages about 1,000 apartments around the city. Usually, about 30 units are being treated for bedbugs, he said. The constant attention has kept the problem from getting worse, he said, but it’s costing the housing authority nearly $100,000 a year.

“We don’t have a choice but to keep treating it as aggressively as possible,” Adelson said. “Sometimes we treat it and we think we’ve eliminated the problem, but two weeks later we have a new outbreak. The only thing we know right now is that they can’t be eradicated. It becomes a continuous management.”

Trained dogs such as Cassie have become a standard tool of the exterminator’s trade. The dogs are said to be about 90 percent accurate and can find living bugs or eggs in far less time than a human can.

With the high-profile outbreaks in New York and other cities, some Mainers are even paying $150 or so for precautionary inspections, even if they haven’t been bitten, St. Amand said.

Atlantic Pest Solutions has added three dogs and more than 12 people to its staff in the past year to handle the growing number of bedbug calls, St. Amand said. The company also has a truck, called “the bug baker,” that is used to heat infested pieces of furniture to 140 degrees or more for three hours. Bedbugs and eggs die at about 120 degrees, he said.

Heat is now Atlantic’s weapon of choice. The company uses space heaters to kill the bugs in homes, apartments and other buildings, although some cases require chemicals or a combination of heat and chemicals, St. Amand said.

St. Amand, like other exterminators, wouldn’t reveal which businesses or homes his company has treated for bedbugs. But, he said, there are plenty of people asking for help.

“It’s been a huge boon for business,” he said. “Demand is there.”

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]