Editor’s note: This article is excerpted with permission from the new Bed Bug Handbook: The Complete Guide to Bed Bugs and Their Control, 2nd Edition. L.J. Pinto, R. Cooper and S.K. Kraft. © Pinto & Associates, 2021. See box below for information about how to order.
It is often said that bed bug infestations are not related to poor housekeeping, as is the case with cockroaches and mice. But one aspect of poor housekeeping in residences does contribute to bed bugs: clutter. Clutter includes piles of clothing, books, magazines, toys, boxes, bags, newspapers, food containers, shoes and the like on the floor, piled on furniture, in closets and virtually anywhere else. Clutter provides bed bugs with innumerable places to hide, as well as protection from insecticides and other treatments. Good housekeeping reduces clutter and eliminates many bed bug hiding places, making control easier.
Residents may be willing to reduce the clutter in their homes once they understand the clear relationship between clutter and bed bugs. Unfortunately, clutter reduction is not so easy in many of the sites with the worst bed bug problems. A classic example is high-density, inner-city housing, where people and possessions are crammed to overflowing in small apartments. Where else can the residents put their clothes and possessions besides where they have them now...piled in closets and under the bed and stacked on the floor in the corners of rooms? Many apartments do not have separate storage rooms for residents or, if they do, the security is suspect and residents refuse to use them. Sometimes the only way to significantly reduce clutter in a crowded apartment would be to dispose of possessions, something that few people, understandably, are willing to do.
Residents can be overwhelmed when faced with the task of tackling the clutter in their home. Not all clutter is equally important, however, and it may help to communicate to the resident which clutter must be eliminated to control bed bugs versus clutter whose elimination is desired but optional. Priorities for eliminating clutter are:
- Items under beds, chairs and sofas. Nothing should be left under furniture used for sleeping or resting.
- Items next to, or within 3 feet of, beds, chairs and sofas. This includes clutter on the floor or on furniture such as nightstands, end tables and coffee tables. There should be a clutter-free zone under and around sleeping and resting areas.
- Items on top of beds, chairs and sofas, such as piles of clothing, papers, extra blankets, throws, pet bedding, stuffed animals, etc. If pillows or stuffed animals are part of the decor in these areas they should be placed in a hot dryer at least once a week until bed bugs have been eliminated from the home.
Residents need to take certain precautions when decluttering to keep from moving bed bugs from one location to another. Items to be discarded should be sealed in heavy-duty garbage bags. Items to be saved should be disinfested prior to relocating them to an area away from beds and furniture. The methods used will vary with the item and can include hot laundering, placing in a dryer set on a hot cycle, freezing in a household freezer at 0°F (-18°C) for more than four days, heating in a portable heating unit or steaming.
After clothing and other materials are disinfested, residents should be encouraged to store them in bags and containers with tight lids and to otherwise reduce clutter, especially in sleeping and lounging areas. If nothing else, items should be picked up off of the floor, removed from under the bed, and moved into non-sleeping areas.
Clutter is rarely a contributor to bed bug problems in hotels and medical facilities where housekeeping is institutionalized, but it often is in residences, shelters, dormitories and camps where housekeeping is the responsibility of the occupants.
DEALING WITH HOARDERS. Hoarders compulsively acquire things that seem to be useless or of limited value. Bed bug infestations in their homes can be entrenched and seemingly impossible to control. Their home will have all manner of things accumulated in every available inch of living space, often stacked halfway to the ceiling. Is there anything that pest control companies can do to reduce clutter in these homes? The answer, unfortunately, is usually no, at least not in the short-term.
Classic hoarding is considered a mental health issue that almost always requires expert intervention. Any solution will have to involve family, government agencies, lots of time and plenty of frustration. Reducing clutter in the home of a severe hoarder is more than a pest control professional or property manager can handle alone. With the help of a support system, and inputs of time and money, a hoarder’s clutter problem can be reduced but, sadly, such commitment is rare. In apartments, eviction sometimes proves to be the only solution that is acceptable to property management.
One pest control strategy that may help deal with a hoarder’s clutter is to use compartment heat treatment to disinfest the hoarder’s possessions room by room. The process of removing possessions and heat-treating them in a storage pod, shipping container or special chamber can be part of the program to cull and organize the hoarder’s possessions. But again, this will require coordination with family and social support services.