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artist illustration of a bed bug on a carpet

What’s more terrifying than snakes on a plane? It’s bed bugs on your bus. Right now, the city of Paris is experiencing an outbreak of bed bugs in their public transit system. Normally an infestation occurring on another continent would not be particularly worrisome; however, the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games will take place in Paris next July through September. North American transit agencies would do well to create a plan for treating a possible influx of infestations on their buses created by returning athletes and attendees.

Bed bugs are small, parasitic insects that feed on the blood of humans and other animals. Besides being found in beds, they can also be found in other furniture, clothing, and luggage. Bed bugs hitchhike on people and their belongings, which means that they can easily be spread from homes or hotels to public transit vehicles. American transportation systems have already experienced bed bug problems. This past April, New Haven (CT) Union Station was forced to close down its waiting area temporarily until exterminators could clear an infestation.

Unlike mosquitos, bed bugs haven’t yet been found to transmit disease to humans. But the emotional toll an infestation takes can be high. This National Library of Medicine report notes that “not only are residents of infested dwellings subject to physical symptoms such as irritating and painful bites, rashes, sleep loss, and allergic reactions, but some also suffer immense psychological and emotional distress.”

Bedbugs broke me. They stole 8 months of my life. I couldn’t sleep because I was so paranoid about being bitten. The bites would itch for weeks, and even after they healed I had phantom itching.

– Twitter user @issahev 

One of the reasons for the explosion in population of these pests is immunity to chemical treatments. However, there are some new treatments in production, specifically the veterinary drug Fluralaner which has been tested on poultry. There are hundreds of other pesticides. Common treatments include Pyrethrins derived from chrysanthemums and biochemicals derived from Neem trees. Desiccants like boric acid can be used to destroy the bug’s protective outer coating. Another class of chemicals, insect growth regulators prevent the pests from fully maturing.

There are two problems with using chemicals like these. One is that the bugs may eventually become resistant to them, which is why treatment usually involves more than one chemical. Insect growth regulators, for example, which work slowly over time, could be paired with a pyrethrin-based insecticide. A second problem is that these chemicals, if not properly applied, may leave traces of residue on vehicles that potentially could pose a health hazard to riders.

Other treatments that can be used on buses include heat technology (exposing the bugs to temperatures over 118 degrees Fahrenheit over a 20-minute period) and complete vehicle fumigation. A European company, Valpas, has developed an innovative technology that allows hotels to monitor and destroy bed bug infestations proactively. Hopefully, this solution can eventually be applied to public transit vehicles.

Should agencies inform riders if they suspect bed bugs?

Normally, our public health advice to agencies would be to educate riders about a threat by distributing educational materials and displaying informational signage. Many agencies were successful in doing exactly that to communicate the risks of Covid to their riders. But nobody wants to be on a bus and thinking about bed bugs! And agencies can’t afford to lose a large contingent of riders due to a bug scare.

Instead, agencies should focus on educating operators and maintenance staff about the signs of infestation and approach prevention aggressively. That includes inspecting public transit vehicles regularly for signs of bed bugs. Vehicles should be cleaned using vacuums equipped with HEPA filters. If an infestation is found, the vehicle should be removed from service for immediate treatment. All clothing (even the shoes) worn by operators needs to be washed and dried at the highest temperature possible.

In all, there’s no need to panic. But transit agencies are advised to start developing a response plan for bed bug infestations that outlines the steps that will be taken to eradicate infestations before they can spread to other vehicles. The plan should be shared with all agency staff to help them prepare for and respond to infestations effectively. Having a plan in place will enable transit agencies to protect their passengers and employees and minimize possible disruption to services.