A letter to the Omsbudman of the Washington Post

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Submitted by BedBug Central on Tue, 2008-03-18 11:00

This is a letter written by Richard Cooper expressing his concern regarding an article written by David Segal. In the opinion of bed bug central, raising the publics awareness about bed bugs is among the most important steps in trying to slow down the continued spread of this difficult insect.

While we understand that at times bed bugs can be overexaggerated in the media, we feel that Mr. Segal's article misrepresents this problem in the opposite direction. We do, however, agree that it is important that reports of bed bugs be confirmed as there are other explanations for why people may suffer bites or bite-like symptoms.

Below is the letter sent by Richard Cooper to the Washington Post:

Dear Ms. Howell,

I am sending you this email in regards Mr. David Segal's recent article "Hmm. Tiny, Evil -- And Everywhere?". I'm sure that you have received your fair share of backlash regarding this article and until now I have told myself to just let it be. However, every few days I see this article show up via another media outlet and more recently I listened to Mr. Segal's interview on NPR's "On the Media" which finally compelled me to address the subject.

This is the first time that I have ever felt strongly enough about an article to respond to the source. I am writing you because I am shocked that this type of reporting would come out of the Washington Post. I would expect this from a media source that is not reputable, one that does not thoroughly research their topic, but not from the Washington Post. I apologize in advance if my comments are not conveyed as eloquently as they should be as I am writing this with a great deal of emotion.

I am an entomologist, and a recognized expert on the subject of bed bugs, however I am also an owner of a pest management firm in NJ, so based upon Mr. Segal's comments this makes me an unreliable source, as I have something to gain by over-exaggerating the "true" nature of bed bug activity in the US. I can assure you that this assumption would be inaccurate. I was interviewed by Daniela Deane for the companion article "Yes. Tiny, Evil - - and In my Bed", that appeared along side of Mr. Segal's article. I believe this was intended to be a point/counterpoint pair of articles unfortunately Ms. Deane's article seemed to be positioned more as a personal account rather than a counter point. I am disappointed in the Washington Post and feel that Mr. Segal's article misrepresents the true state of affairs about bed bugs.

Although Mr. Segal's article certainly cast a dark cloud over the pest management industry's ethics, that is not what has stimulated me to write to you. More importantly than the pest management industry's image is the false message that this article sends out to the American public regarding a very serious and widespread problem with bed bugs.

I'm not going to go into a rant about how emotionally devastating this pest can be to those who suffer from an infestation, I get the idea that Mr. Segal understands this point. However, I am at a loss for why Mr. Segal is so driven to convince the public that the resurgence of bed bugs is grossly overstated? I am offended that Mr. Segal has taken the position that anyone associated with the pest management industry is a biased source and cannot be viewed as credible. I can certainly understand that there are some that may inflate or exaggerate the topic for their own personal gain, but does he honestly believe that there are not credible sources out there that have a differing opinion other than his own?

So he uses Dr. Richard Pollack's quotes in a manner that supports his argument but not Dr. Michael Potter'sNY DOH Statistics to show that the majority of complaints were not confirmed cases of bed bugs, but does he try to inquire or understand why this might be the case, there are explanations for this. Even without the explanations, doesn't an increase from zero inquiries in 2003 to 500 confirmed cases in 2006 seem a bit alarming? Why did Mr. Segal, stop at a single statistic? What about other municipalities such as Cincinnati, Las Vegas, San Francisco, or parts of Kentucky that are reeling from bed bugs? Why not look at what is happening globally in Canada, the UK, Australia and other countries? There are a number of International experts that are government officials that could have been interviewed, are they also not credible? Why not look at the increase in confirmed samples that are being sent into Extension entomologists to get hard statistics on the increase in bed bug activity?

Mr. Segal has a legitimate point, regarding, misdiagnosis, which he illustrates well through Dr. Pollack's comments about many samples being received that are not bed bugs, or Jay Nixon, discussing samples that turn out to be nothing more than lint? These stories are not new to the pest control industry we have dealt with "mystery bites" and delusionary parisitosis for decades, but now things have changed, and if you do suddenly begin waking up with itchy red welts, there is no question that bed bugs should be among the causes that you try to at least rule out. It is wrong for pest control companies to treat a property for bed bugs when a problem has not been confirmed and I would certainly expect that while some companies may do this, it is not representative of the industry as a whole. Perhaps, the article would have served the public better, if Mr. Segal suggested that his readers confirm the problem before they begin spending money to solve what they suspect are bed bugs. Prior to 2004, presentations on bed bugs at the Entomological Society of America's annual meetings were non existent. In 2004 the first bed bug symposium was held, this past December approximately 30 presentations were given on the subject of bed bugs at the annual ESA meeting in San Diego.

Prior to 2004, there was not a single research program in the United States studying bed bugs, now there are at least six and the number is growing. Among them, some of the most noted Urban Entomology programs in the country, to include the Univ. of Florida, Univ. of Kentucky, NC State, Purdue Univ., Virginia Tech etc. I guess the research community that is actively studying this pest cannot be viewed as a credible source either?

It seems that anyone having a differing opinion than that of Mr. Segal's is either discounted or positioned as unreliable. I could go on and on, the point is that the resurgence of bed bugs is a very real issue and while there may be some misleading statistics there are many others that are not. It doesn't take that much effort to sift through what is real and what is exaggerated to learn the truth. Obviously, this was not Mr. Segal's intent, he had a story that he wanted to tell and he told it.

The United States as well as many other parts of the world are in fact experiencing a very significant and serious increase in bed bug activity. Like many new phenomena, half of the battle to stop the unrestricted spread of an emergent problem is to raise public awareness so that people recognize the problem early on and can do something about it before it gets out of control and is disseminated further. It is the lack of public awareness regarding bed bugs that is likely to be responsible for the rapid increase and dramatic spread that we have witnessed over the past 5-6 years.

As I mentioned before, I feel that Mr. Segal's article misrepresents the true state of affairs about bed bugs and serves as an obstacle to the effort of raising public awareness which is desperately needed to help slow down the spread of this challenging pest.

I would look forward to a reply.

Best regards,

Richard Cooper

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