Bed Bugs Resurface on Campus
By Nicole Jacques
BU News Service
Rob Zappulla knew something wasn’t right when earlier this fall his roommate’s small collection of extreme Frisbee battle scars started multiplying across his arm.
“My roommate had been finding little bites on his arms and he wasn’t really sure what they were,” said Zappulla, SMG ‘16.
The apparent bruises would not go away, but that’s because they were not bruises at all. Zappulla’s roommate had in fact gathered a small collection of bed bug bites after moving into their new dorm room on the fourth floor of 575 Commonwealth Ave. (“HoJo”).
For Zappulla and his roommates, September move-in brought the opportunity for bed bugs to settle in, too. Though this was not the first instance of bed bugs on campus, September’s sighting reignited an issue that for years has caused controversy at Boston University. In light of the most recent incident, university officials and pest experts are reminding students to stay aware of the risk and be prepared to take actions quickly in the event bed bugs are detected.
Bed Bugs: From East Campus to West Campus
From the start, Zappulla and his roommates were careful to take this risk seriously. After researching the bites online, Zappulla contacted the Boston University Residence Hall Association to report the problem. RHA sent an exterminator to investigate, which led to the discovery of bed bugs clinging to the window curtains on the right side of the room.
The Daily Free Press reported that HoJo also experienced student reports of bed bugs in October 2008, in addition to a February 2007 report of bed bugs at the nearby Shelton Hall dormitory located at 91 Bay State Rd.
The issue spans far beyond just East Campus, however. Shauna Ward (COM ‘14) said she and her suitemates found bed bugs at their 1019 Commonwealth Ave. residence in October 2012.
“It was awful,” Ward said of the process that ensued following the discovery of a dead bed bug in her suitemate’s bed.
Following confirmation of the insects in their residences, both Ward and Zappulla were ushered into a process that lasted over two weeks and involved numerous preparatory steps prior to treatment of their rooms.
“We had to basically pack up all of our things and put them in plastic bags and then into yellow carts just to make sure that they didn’t get [infected],” Zappulla said.
According to BU Today’s “Bed Bugs 101” handbook, Boston University officials typically respond to a confirmed report of bed bugs in a campus residence by sending an exterminator to spray insecticide on the premises within 48 hours of the confirmation. During this process, students must remain out of the room and are not allowed to return until six hours following the procedure. Mattresses and room furnishings may be replaced by the university when necessary. In addition, a cautionary follow-up spray is often conducted three weeks after the initial treatment.
Colin Riley, Boston University executive director of media relations, said the process is standard. “[It is] very straightforward protocol,” Riley said, adding that students are provided with a step-by-step list of actions they should take in order to aid the treatment process.
Despite the standardized procedure, students have raised concerns that the university has not done enough to aid students afflicted by infestations. Ward, whose room had to be sprayed three times due to an initial spraying that was not thorough enough, said the university did not seem prepared to deal with the issue.
“The RAs really didn’t understand the procedures and policies,” she said. “It seemed to us that [the university] didn’t really make an effort and take it seriously.”
Ward said the school could have acted better by providing alternate living accommodations during the time of the infestation and treatment. She said the university did financially compensate her for loads of laundry that had to be washed as a result of the room spraying.
Zappulla, who opted to stay with a friend in Warren Towers for two nights following initial detection of the bugs in his HoJo room, agreed with Ward but said he sees the potential liability from the university’s side.
“In the moment we didn’t think they were doing as good of a job as they could have but looking back on the situation, it’s hard for them to make accommodations on a case-by-case basis,” Zappulla said. He added that he understands the university’s concern over spreading the bugs to other parts of campus.
From Campus to City
Zappulla and Ward are not alone. Although bed bugs are especially common in the city, the issue spans far beyond just the city of Boston and specifically Boston University. In fact, the crawling creatures have made their way into the dorms and living environments of college campuses across the nation.
Nearly 47 percent of pest professionals report that they treated for bed bugs in college dorms in 2012, as reported in a recent survey released by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky.
This statistic shouldn’t be surprising, officials said. College living environments often become commonplace for bed bugs because of the constant moving that occurs from semester to semester.
“Bed bugs are essentially nest parasites [and] our homes, our offices, our dormitories are essentially glorified nests,” said Richard Pollack, a Boston-based public health entomologist and president and chief scientific officer of the pest detection company IdentifyUS LLC.
As creatures that spread by latching onto clothing, luggage, and belongings, bed bugs are often unknowingly carried into a dorm when students move in for a new semester, Pollack said.
Riley, the BU spokesman, said the university addresses this threat by frequently inspecting campus residences for bed bugs. A check is conducted during the summer, as well as during fall in accordance with reports of specific incidents.
The Right to Know
When dealing with an incident of bed bugs in such a large college environment, many officials said it is important to stay informed. In recent years, however, Boston University has been criticized for its failure to inform the larger study body of an incident.
In October 2007, the Daily Free Press reported that students participating in Boston University’s London study abroad program claimed they had been threatened by a school official to keep quiet after voicing suspected bed bugs in their residence.
Zappulla had a similar experience. “They asked us if we could stay quiet about the issue just not to incite people to be nervous or outraged,” Zappulla said.
In close living situations like college dormitories, sometimes an incident is publicized for the safety of the entire living community. Caryn Solly, a self-titled bed bug expert and author of a blog about bed bugs, said community members sent a letter around the building when bed bugs were detected in her Jackson Heights, N.Y. apartment complex in 2004.
“Notifying the community that they’re around [was]…a good thing,” she said. “The more people [that are] pulled into the conversation, the better it can be addressed.”
Though some students raise the issue of the university’s responsibility to keep students informed, Pollack said sometimes the risk of inciting hysteria plays a role in how institutions decide to publicize word of individual cases like Zappulla’s or Ward’s.
Riley said Boston University would inform a large body of students only if the potential for a bed bug infestation is widespread, such as at a dorm like Warren Towers.
“Unfortunately, when you tell people [there has been an incident of bed bugs], they start scratching. They think that they [have them] and they don’t,” said Riley.
Though this may alarm some students, Pollack said students shouldn’t worry. “The vast majority of bugs that people find…are not bed bugs,” he said. “People very frequently mistake those other very innocuous creatures to be something that they’re not…[and] a lot of hysteria and a lot of overtreatment results because of that.”
Still, bed bugs are an issue that will continue to be relevant for many years to come. “It’s a worldwide phenomenon,” said Jonathan Boyar, principal of Ecologic Entomology, a Boston area pest control company.
“We don’t see anything on the horizon that will solve this problem,” said Boyar, who explained that current insecticide and heat treatments for bed bugs still do not guarantee perfect results.
Experts maintain that the best way to deal with bed bugs is to be persistent about addressing the issue, especially when it comes to dealing with pest professionals and property owners. “The more on top of this you are, the better and faster it will get solved,” Solly said.