For the past nine years, Michael Swoyer has been Kansas City’s supervisor of rat control, helping to investigate and eradicate the varmints where they pose a public health threat.
But in the last few years, he’s been getting calls about a different kind of pest. Bed bugs.
Residents asked him to get rid of the infestations. And it frustrated him to tell them there was nothing he could do. The treatments can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and the Health Department has no funding to deal with bed bugs, which can certainly be a nuisance but which don’t pose a direct health threat.
Still, Swoyer wanted to help in some way. So he and other health department officials have come up with a program that will at least give homeowners advice and education about bed bugs and other insect infestations, and a chance at discounted prices from area pest management companies.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Swoyer said. “People can live better.”
Naser Jouhari, environmental health services manager, says Swoyer had developed excellent informational brochures that he could send to residents with bed bug complaints, but that didn’t seem sufficient.
“When they call us, they need help,” he said of the city’s residents. “That’s why we started this program.”
Classes are expected to begin in July, and some people have already told the Health Department they plan to attend.
The program, dubbed “integrated pest management,” has been in the works for months. In a memo dated Dec. 23, 2013, Swoyer outlined the problems he was confronting. From Oct. 24 through Nov. 26 of 2013, the department received 15 phone calls, one email and two walk-ins regarding bed bugs.
More recently, Swoyer estimates he gets several such complaints per week, mostly south of the Missouri River but also some north of the river. Complaints are especially prevalent during the summer.
Swoyer is even more worried about cockroaches and mice, which can pose a health threat, especially to people with asthma.
“Obviously, bed bugs are a problem and bed bugs are the engine that’s pushing this thing, but the fact is that there’s a long-term health crisis going on with people with asthma, particularly children with asthma,” he said. “Bed bugs to a small extent, but mice and cockroaches definitely, spread allergens and make asthma attacks worse for kids.”
Swoyer calls that a hidden “epidemic” that people seem to just accept. But he believes public education and partnership with pest management companies could help eliminate some of the nuisance and even improve public health.
“Once they (residents) know more about what we’re offering here in terms of giving them better strategies for dealing with pests and also giving them a little bit of help with the pest management professional, I think this is going to be a big deal,” he said.
While most people think dealing with insects involves having an exterminator spray once a month, Swoyer said integrated pest management seeks the least damaging method that is effective and economical. It requires the resident to take some responsibility to help address the problem and prepare the property for treatment.
Strategies can include basic sanitation, crack and crevice repair and monitoring. He notes that within one year of implementing integrated pest management, the Boston Housing Authority saw a 75 percent reduction in calls for pests.
The Kansas City program calls for people to attend one class, which should last 90 minutes to two hours, and take a short exam at the end. Classes will provide information on pests and how they proliferate, describe how integrated pest management works, and deal with cleaning practices and other approaches.
People who pass the test will get a certificate and a coupon for discounted pest management services.
Four companies have agreed to partner with the city on this initiative: Schendel Pest Services, SOS Pest Control, Serengeti Pest Control and Smithereen Pest Management. The discounts will be based on the size of the problem and the amount of time required to deal with it.
The classes are free and open to anyone, but Swoyer said the discounts currently are for homeowners only. Even though he deals with a lot of complaints from tenants in apartment buildings, he said this program is not designed for multi-family properties, which may already have their own pest management contracts.
Mark Lillis, director of quality assurance with Schendel Pest Services in Kansas City, agreed that education for residents is a useful first step to dealing with bed bug problems.
Fortunately, Kansas City isn’t on annual lists for cities with the worst bed bug infestations, such as New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago and Detroit. But Lillis said he’s seen a double-digit increase in calls in recent years.
“It’s increased so much that we actually have two dedicated bed bug remediation expert teams (of 3-4 people each team) to address this problem,” he said. Heat treatment — getting the ambient air temperature to a minimum of 120 degrees for at least four hours — is the most common approach to combatting the problem.
Lillis said there are a lot of misconceptions about bed bugs.
“It doesn’t care about the socio-economics of a person,” he said. “People think it’s a result of poor housekeeping or filth and that’s just not the case. We have found these bugs in every level of homes and hotels you can imagine. Multimillion-dollar homes, four-star hotels.”
The pests most often get into a home by hitching a ride with people who have been traveling, or through secondhand items such as mattresses or chairs that may come into a residence.
Lillis applauded the city’s approach to public information.
“The more education, the better things will be,” he said, while adding that getting rid of bed bugs is “not a do-it-yourself-project.”
Swoyer acknowledged that bed bug problems also exist in libraries, movie theaters and other commercial properties. While the classes are geared to homeowners, he said he is also happy to talk to commercial property owners about pest management options.
To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to email@example.com.
The Kansas City Health Department expects to begin offering free classes next month to educate residents on integrated pest management.
After completing the course and passing the test, homeowners will receive a certificate and a coupon for discounted pest management services. Four companies are participating in the program.
Call 816-513-6010 to learn more. Information on class schedules and locations should also be available late this month at the health department’s webpage at www.kcmo.org.
If you’re bitten
Bed bugs generally do not spread illness or disease, but their bites can be annoying, says Jeff Hershberger, public information officer with the Kansas City Health Department.
He suggested that bites be treated with any type of topical cream that someone would use for other insect bites, but people may want to consult a doctor if they develop an allergic reaction or welts.
And, as with all insect bites, people should be careful not to scratch, since that's how the bites can become infected.