Sci­ence Lit­tle Big Prob­lem

Bed­bugs may be trav­el­ing the globe via dirty laun­dry

Newsweek International - - NEWSWEEK - BY JES­SICA FIRGER @jess­firger

Thanks To The ad­vent of

cheap travel, bed­bugs are thriv­ing. Lit­tle re­search has been done to un­der­stand how best to pre­vent these blood­suck­ers from board­ing transcon­ti­nen­tal flights and re­turn­ing home with trav­el­ers, but you might want to take a hard look at your smelly socks.

Re­searchers from Bri­tain’s Univer­sity of Sh­effield had rea­son to sus­pect that un­washed cloth­ing at­tracts bed­bugs, par­a­sitic in­sects that find their meals by fol­low­ing hu­man scents.

Wil­liam Hent­ley and col­leagues wanted to know if our dirty laun­dry plays a role in the trav­els of bed­bugs. They in­structed vol­un­teers wear white cotton T-shirts and socks. Three hours later, the re­searchers sealed the cloth­ing in zi­plock bags, then washed half the sets. Each set of cloth­ing was then put into clean duf­fel bags.

The ex­per­i­ment used two rooms, iden­ti­cal ex­cept that one had el­e­vated lev­els of car­bon diox­ide to sim­u­late the pres­ence of a hu­man. The re­searchers re­leased bed­bugs into the rooms. Ac­cord­ing to the study, pub­lished on­line last month by Sci­en­tific Re­ports, bed­bugs were twice as likely to end up in the bags with un­washed clothes than in those con­tain­ing clean clothes. The el­e­vated car­bon diox­ide level, which should have fooled the bugs into be­hav­ing as if a hu­man was present, was not as strong a draw as dirty laun­dry.

Be­cause trav­el­ers tend to re­turn home with bags full of worn cloth­ing, suit­cases are “po­ten­tial ‘ve­hi­cles’ for pas­sive dis­per­sal,” the au­thors write. Sweat and volatiles—chem­i­cals that evap­o­rate at room tem­per­a­ture, of­ten send­ing scents waft­ing through the air—re­lease hu­man odor that, the re­searchers ex­plain, “may there­fore in­flu­ence host-search­ing be­hav­ior in bed­bugs.” That’s a sci­en­tist’s way of say­ing that dirty clothes are an ideal free in­ter­na­tional flight for bed­bugs.

Those wary of bringing home bed­bugs might do their laun­dry be­fore get­ting on a plane. “Care­ful man­age­ment of holiday cloth­ing may be an im­por­tant strat­egy in the preven­tion of bringing home bed­bugs,” the re­searchers con­clude.

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