Will I Get Bed Bugs From Buying Used Stuff?

Contrary to a popular misconception, they aren't attracted to squalor.

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Jun 21 2017, 4:00pm

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Ah, friends. They're like family but cooler. Fully customizable. Fall and one of them will be right there to pick you back up. But as great as friends can be, they also do a lot of really stupid stuff. Stuff that blows your mind. Like, sometimes it seems crazy that you even hang out with people who make such crappy decisions. Stuff that, were it to get out, would be mortifying for anyone with even a shred of self-respect. Lucky for your friends, they've got you to ask their deepest, darkest questions for them. And lucky for you, we started this column to answer those most embarrassing inquiries.

The Situation: Your friend is looking to furnish an apartment but doesn't have much money. If she buys a bed or sofa off of Craigslist or from a thrift store, how concerned should she be about bedbugs? Is there some test she can do before taking it home? Are there other concerns one should have about secondhand furniture? Could something spread all over a house?

The Reality: Cimex lectularius, aka bedbugs, are small insects that feed on the blood of mammals, often infesting homes and businesses and hiding in furniture. Compared to mosquitos, bedbugs are more a nuisance than a killer. They don't spread disease, but they do seriously immiserate people with biting, allergic reactions, and small trails of blood and biological mess. Despite a popular misconception, they aren't attracted to squalor—just large mammals whose blood they can suck. Bedbugs have even been found in high-end hotels.

Infestations are also on the rise in the US. One survey from the National Pest Management Association showed that 99.6 percent of pest controllers treated for bedbugs in 2015, compared to 25 percent in 2000. Experts blame increases in international travel and urbanization on spreading the bugs.

Yes, scouring Craigslist or estate sales for cheap sofas or mattresses does present some risk. "[O]ne of the most common ways bed bugs are introduced to a home is through used and discarded furniture," says Jeff White, director of innovation and technical content for BedBug Central, a New Jersey-based pest control company. Bedbugs jump from clothing and furniture, reproduce quickly, and infest entire homes.


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While there is no exact test for bedbugs, there are visual signs — which is why Bill Hastings, director of specialty services for Indiana-based Rose Pest Solutions, says your friend should "never buy any item without first inspecting it firsthand."

Contrary to what most people think, bed bugs themselves are actually visible to the naked eye; they just hide in screw holes, cracks, crevices and seams of furniture. Inspect those areas carefully, Hastings says. Also "look for what can best be described as 'black felt tip marker stains' or black splotches," he adds. "These marks will be easily visible on fabric and wood and are from the excess blood the bed bug eats." This is essentially bedbug barf; blood they eat and then eject, often so they can shrink back into a hiding place. Thus, finding it is a sure sign bedbugs have made a piece of furniture their own.

The Worst That'll Happen: Bedbug infestations are a serious pain in the ass. The Environmental Protection Agency warns that bugs reproduce quickly and are resistant to pesticides. You may have to make several attempts to eradicate them and might need to hire a professional.

"There are all kinds of sprays and dusts available over the counter at your local hardware stores," Hastings says. While these products make "wild claims," he says, people frequently fail to use them correctly, thinking more is always better.

Kenneth F. Haynes, a professor in the department of entomology at the University of Kentucky, also warns your friend might eventually call in pest-control pros. Often their remedy is getting your home as hot as a sauna, a climate bedbugs can't survive. "Heat treatment can deal with the bugs," Haynes says, "but even that takes expertise."

Bedbug remediation can cost between $500 and $1,500 according to the consumer website AngiesList—much more, we'll add, than the difference between a loveseat from a garage sale and a new one from Ikea.

What'll Probably Happen: Hastings says it's "rare" for online sellers to knowingly pass on an infested item, but the strangers you contact on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace might not know their stuff has bedbugs. Thrift stores and other second-hand furniture retailers, however, are used to this problem and inspect and treat items accordingly. "Most locations, by this time, have had to deal with bedbugs and have developed procedures to prevent their building from being infested and allowing infested items from being sold," he says.

Hastings adds that if you are overly concerned about picking up bedbugs from furniture, your paranoia might be a bit selective; bedbugs can be anywhere. "[Y]ou are more likely to get bedbugs simply by going out to eat at your favorite restaurant, [or] going to see the newest blockbuster movie, or by taking any form of public transportation, or even visiting your best friend," he says. "You never really know for sure. Over the last 12 years I have seen bedbugs in just about every type of building and vehicle, from hospital waiting rooms to burger joints."

What You Should Tell Your Friend: There is a risk of bringing in bedbugs from used furniture, but that risk can be lessened by knowing visual signs of infestation or by going to a second-hand retail shop, which probably adheres to anti-bedbug procedures that some dude from Craigslist probably does not. Also, living in the modern world is to be at risk of random bedbug infestation and an informed purchase of used furniture does not significantly increase your risk.

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