Design Dilemma: Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite


The media has gone bed bug crazy in recent months, and all the hoopla got me thinking: Does my habit of buying used furniture at estate sales and flea markets put me at risk? Dr. Gail Getty, an entomologist at University of California, Berkeley, says yes. She has some simple techniques for protecting the person who loves to shop for vintage furniture and home accessories.

Courtesy of Flickr user zoetnet

According to Getty—who, as one of the foremost experts on bed bugs in the U.S., has appeared on multiple national news programs and become something of a celebrity—says an innocent day of picking up flea market finds can end with bed bug infestation.

“You wouldn’t believe how resiliant and sneaky they can be,” she says. “Bed bugs—which, when full grown, are about the size of a tick—can hide in spaces so small you can barely fit your business card inside. And their eggs may simply not be able to be detected by the human eye.”

While scary, that fact shouldn’t necessarily deter vintage shoppers. “If it’s an item that’s precious or is a good deal, you may want to buy it if you take the proper precautions,” she says.

Here’s what Getty suggests:

Courtesy of Flickr user IseFire

1. Inspect the item on site.

Before you leave the flea market booth or estate sale, look the item over very carefully. If you see actual bugs, small black spots or what looks like a heavy coat of dust, the item could infested. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve inspected an item and someone standing next to me said ‘what’s all that dust?'” she says. “It looked like dust, but it was actually bed bug eggs.”

2. Bag it and inspect at home.

If the object of your desire passes the first inspection, Getty suggests bagging it in a mattress cover designed to contain bed bugs (it should say so on the box) and taking it home. But, she warns, do not bring the item inside. Go over it carefully outside the house. “Bed bugs love to hide in little corners and cracks,” she says. “I often see them in between piping and fabric on upholstery.” If the item is clean, you are good to go.

3. Call the pros to handle the problem.

Getty says that a pest control expert is the only way to guarantee you’ve eliminated the bugs. She notes that some companies can take care of the problem in your home or in a truck or van they bring to your home (keep the item bagged until they treat it). She recommends looking for bed bug specialists who use integrated approaches that include chemicals, steam and heat. “Really, this isn’t a do-it-yourself project,” she says.

Courtesy Flickr user MShades (2)

But what about the small, inexpensive items? The ones that add character to a household but aren’t worth the cost of hiring an exterminator?

Getty says for the thorough (and perhaps strong of stomach) there is an answer.

“First of all, if it’s a fabric, you can wash it and dry it on the highest temperature and that will take care of them,” she says. “If you can’t get the item wet, throw it in the dryer on the highest setting.”

She also says small items can be examined for bugs and eggs, then double bagged and left in the freezer for one month. “It will take that long to kill them,” she says.

And if you do find one before you place it in the freezer, you can give it the Tony Soprano treatment. “Let’s face it,” says Getty. “If you squash a bed bug, it’s gone and it isn’t coming back.”

For more information about controlling bed bugs, check out

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