The Insidious Enemy: Why bed bugs are our toughest war
In Photos: Uncle Yeo roped in to help during the Project HomeWorks in his house
To defeat one’s enemy, one must know the enemy. It has been a long-drawn out war between Project HomeWorks and bed bugs - one that began since the programme’s inception and still seems to have no end.
While we have yet to win the war, we are helping our homeowners like 80-year-old Uncle Yeo win the battle - one (or four, in his case) Project HomeWorks session at a time.
Over the years, we’ve had time to learn, observe and experiment. So what do we know about these pesky blood suckers after 14 years?
We take an in-depth look at the perennial bed bug problem plaguing many vulnerable Singaporeans, using recent few bed bug cases and personal testimony from:
Uncle Yeo, 80: the one-room rental flat he shares with his brother needed 4 Project HomeWorks sessions spread out from May to June to fully rehabilitate.
Uncle Ler, 78: significant visual impairment from bilateral cataracts puts Uncle Ler at a disadvantage to properly eliminate the infestation on his own.
Bed bugs are the insect version of vampires: they live off human blood. Given the prevalence of bed bugs in Singapore, we’re lucky that bed bugs are only annoying and not deadly. To date, they are not known disease carriers.
It’s easy to identify their nests. If you see a concentration of black spots, that’s bed bug poop and the first sign of a nest nearby. Their eggs are white and oval, like a grain of rice. When they first hatch, bed bugs are a lighter shade of brown and turn dark like engorged sesame seeds after they feed.
L: Concentration of bed bug poop found in Uncle Yeo's house. R: White bed bug eggs on the bed frame
The Problem - Physical, Social and Psychological
Everyone’s reaction to bed bug bites vary, but most will experience a terrible itch - sometimes for weeks on end. Imagine trying to fall asleep feeling these blood-suckers crawling all over, and it’s easy to understand the countless sleepless nights.
For our elderly who are already prone to health complications, restless nights can lead to a whole host of additional risks. A research study has even suggested that bed bugs can cause anemia.
Then, there is also the psychological and social toll of the shame and stigma from neighbours to deal with. The first assumption is always “Uncle/Aunty so-and-so must be dirty”. And yes, while good personal hygiene helps, that alone is not enough. But neighbours will still give the affected resident a wide berth for fear of unwanted bedbug hitchhikers following them back to their own homes.
At first glance, you would think Uncle Ler's neat and minimalist-style flat would be spared. But by some stroke of bad luck, closer inspection found a bed bug infestation hiding in his bedroom.
Just like how we talk about cockroaches surviving a nuclear bomb, bed bugs are getting more chemical resistant. There is evidence that certain pesticides will not kill bed bug eggs.
"Every time I see the bed bugs, I would spray insecticide that I buy from the shop downstairs. But they still wouldn't die," said Uncle Yeo. 10 years on and the infestation in Uncle Yeo's house continued to grow until Project HomeWorks intervened.
Even when using chemical treatment, it’s crucial to be thorough. Any missed spots could mean a re-infestation as bed bugs can go without food for months. Eggs can lay dormant, and when they hatch, baby bed bugs can survive off blood smeared on surfaces when adult bed bugs are killed.
In Photos: Heavy infestation of Uncle Yeo's house that spread to the living room
A Crack In The Defence
Bed bugs can burrow into the tiniest of spaces on the wall and floor to nest. The most problematic areas tend to be gaps on the wall between electrical casings, switch sockets, window frames and floor skirting.
In heavy infestations, they spread from ground zero (usually the bed) outwards to the rest of the house, as far as the toilet and common corridors.
L-R: Signs of infestation along wall cracks & electrical sockets in Uncle Ler's home
No Safe Surface
They also pretty much live wherever they can to be near the homeowner for long periods of time. We usually find them in wooden and fabric furniture like the bed, mattress, wardrobe, sofas and chairs.
Even metal and plastic items are not spared, including some bizarre and unexpected spots like hot water kettles, refrigerators, framed photographs. But of course, metal & plastic items are still easier to clean & disinfect than wood & fabric.
L: Discarding infested wooden furniture in Uncle Yeo's home. R: Uncle Ler's infested metal bed frame
Our Battle Plan
Over the years we have continually honed and sharpened our battle plans and detection against this tough and sneaky opponent.
Our tested-and-true elimination strategy is along 3 lines:
Direct Attack: Kill with chemical fumigation, cleaning chemicals that contain bleach, hot water washes, steam cleaning, long soaks to drown them, discarding furniture with Town Council support.
Mummify: Paint, caulk over gaps in cable casings, cling wrap infested items too precious to be discarded.
Meticulous Defense: Remove all potential hiding spots so that new bed bugs coming in will be caught in the open and easily killed. For example, by cling-wrapping new mattresses & pillows so that no item is left unwrapped, or no hole left uncovered.
In Photos: Before & After transformation of Uncle Ler's bedroom
In Photos: Before & After transformation of Uncle Yeo's bedroom
We work as best as we can to keep costs low. At the same time, we make sure our methods still result in decent and comfortable home environments for our homeowners.
Slowly but surely, we are beginning to see small signs of victory in our comprehensive battle plan. In recent years, the homeowners who collaborated closely with us have not had any re-infestation after our works were completed.
It's through years of support from you - our donors & volunteers - that we've been able to experiment and test our way through 14 years of different approaches.
Habitat remains committed to this long war against bed bugs, to make sure every vulnerable Singaporean can live free of this insidious enemy. And we ask you to keep fighting the good fight with us.
P.S. If you'd like to make a contribution to Project HomeWorks, please visit https://habitat.give.asia/ to see how you can make a difference.