The Morning Call (Sunday)

Bedbugs are infesting Parisian heads, not the beds

Publicatio­n of study, media frenzy cause mass pest paranoia

- By Catherine Porter

PARIS — The owners were convinced they had been infested by bedbugs again.

They stripped their house of every piece of clothing, every last picture frame, every book and children’s toy where a bedbug might hide, and stuffed it all inside garbage bags to be stored outside, in a tent in their backyard in a village an hour east of Paris.

As soon as they returned from work or school, they pulled off all their clothing in the garage, and bundled it directly into the washing machine set for a bedbug-destroying 140 degrees, before setting foot inside the house.

They hired profession­als to spray all their furniture and surfaces with a bug-killing chemical.

And then they called for a bedbug sniffing dog and its expert handler to assure them that all their efforts had paid off.

“They are paranoid now,” said Emilie Gaultier, co-owner of Dogscan, a French canine bedbugdete­cting company that has been inundated with messages from panicked residents over the past few weeks.

Her dog Rio toured all three floors of the empty house and never once told her he smelled one of the small bloodsucki­ng bugs, by putting his paws on her waist and then sitting down. That meant either all their efforts had worked, Gaultier determined — or had been a manifestat­ion of extreme anxiety.

She thinks they probably didn’t have an outbreak in the first place.

“This whole media thing, it’s retraumati­zing people who have had bedbugs,” said Gaultier, “and traumatizi­ng others who never had it.”

Bedbugs are crawling across Parisian sheets and chairs, and they are infesting French minds. While the number of pests may be up modestly in Paris, experts say, the explosion of national anxiety over them far outpaces their growth.

Social media transmitte­d videos of them in Parisian cinemas, trains and subways. The topic has proliferat­ed across radio, television and newspaper pages. Politician­s have made speeches and held news conference­s. The country’s leading bedbug expert, Jean-Michel Bérenger, who has converted his basement in southern France into a bug lab, has become a household name.

Yet, as the phones of specialize­d bedbug detectors and disinfecti­on services have been ringing incessantl­y, some of the callers don’t even have bedbugs.

“I’ve never seen a panic like this,” said Thibault Buckley, answering the phone from the office of bedbug canine detection agency ATN in eastern France. As many as twothirds of calls to exterminat­ors are from people who have seen something that “has nothing to do with a bedbug,” he said.

Some 12 schools reported bedbugs last week, according to the Ministry of Education, out of almost 60,000 schools across the country.

The estimated number of calls to exterminat­ors has increased by 9.7% over the past year, from 997,900 to 1,095,000, according to figures from the national pest control trade associatio­n.

But that jump comes as travel has increased since the end of the pandemic, experts say, so a boost would be expected.

Commonplac­e before World War II, bedbugs were all but eradicated by DDT — the deadly synthetic insecticid­e that was banned in the United States and France in the 1970s because of its persistent toxic effects on animals and humans. The flat brown bugs, which are the size of an apple seed and feed on human and animal blood mostly at night, made a comeback worldwide in the 1990s, propelled by pesticide resistance, the uptick in secondhand shopping and internatio­nal travel.

“Population movement is favorable to bedbugs. They don’t fly, they don’t jump, they move with us,” Bérenger said.

In 2020, the national government set up a bedbug hotline and online informatio­n campaign that helped people diagnose and solve the problem. It also began a national study, which was released in July, revealing that an estimated 11% of French households were infested with bedbugs between 2017 and 2022.

Over the past decade, calls for detection and treatment — and accompanyi­ng news stories — have peaked in the fall, soon after “la rentrée” — the regular French return home after August vacations, often with bedbugs inconspicu­ously stowed in their luggage, Bérenger said.

This year, the combinatio­n of the study’s release, politics and the breathless media cycle has magnified the issue, he theorized.

“There’s a media frenzy,” said Bérenger, adding that his daily calls from journalist­s have turned to the obscure or hyper-specific, as they hunt for new takes on a story that has been exhausted. “Someone just called me to talk about essential oils.”

The coronaviru­s pandemic changed things, too. The thought of picking up a bug in a public place and bringing it home rubs a raw nerve.

“It’s true that the home has truly become the last fortified castle. The bed and bedroom are truly the last bastion of people’s home. And it’s true that bedbug infestatio­n is very, very upsetting,” Buckley said.

“You can be infested with fleas, lice, mites, but bedbugs come and bite you at night while you sleep,” he said. “It perhaps brings back childhood nightmares — it’s a vampire that’s coming.”

Gaultier has a different theory. She runs Dogscan with her older sister Julie, who brought an American dog trained to detect bedbugs to France in 2010, after reading in The New York Times about their detective roles during an outbreak in New York City. Over years, the women have found their jobs often veering into life coaching and therapy.

Bedbugs, Gaultier said, draw deeper problems to the surface and become their focus and symbol. She has worked with many couples for whom bedbugs were the final straw to break their unhappy marriages. Many women disclose they are in abusive relationsh­ips while she and her dog Rio search their homes, she says.

“One day, a lady said, ‘If I have bedbugs, I’m jumping out the window,’ ” said Gaultier, walking Rio, a ginger Portuguese Podengo she adopted after he followed her for two days along a hiking trail.

For people who are already very unsettled, she said, “bedbugs eat at their fragile mental states.”

“Bedbugs have this magic ability to take any baggage or anxiety you have and focus it,” she said. “They become the tip of the iceberg.”

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