Last week a friend of mine in Paris emailed in a panic: her neighbor told her he had bedbugs, and she already found a few suspicious bites on her arms. I told her not to freak out until she was 100% sure they were bedbug bites. But I was already freaking out for her.
Government Website & Hotline
When the bed bugs, aka punaises de lit, came back with a vengeance in Febuary this year (causes include unseasonably warm weather and the bugs’ increasing resistance to pesticides), politicians debated declaring it a national healthcare emergency (yeah…that was before we realized a whole different health crisis was about to descend). What they did do was create a new websiite — stop-punaises.gouv.fr — to help residents and business owners figure out how to prevent getting bed bgs and what to do if you do get them. There’s even a dedicated hotline to call if you have questions: 0806 706 806. Needless to say, it’s all in French, so you’ll need to use an auto-translator if you can’t follow, but this should be the first place you go if you’re worried you might have them.
My Own Bed Bug Horror Story
I would have had that number on speed dial if it had existed back in 2014 when I got bed bugs in my old apartment. I still have no idea if I picked them up when traveling around France and the UK for a month, if my dogsitter brought them along after staying in a youth hostel, if something I picked up at the flea market was infested, or if they came through the floors from a neighbor’s apartment. That part wasn’t important.
What was important were the bites on my arms, the little red dots on my sheets, and — the final proof — the live specimen running across my bedroom wall when I awoke at 3am. I tore apart my entire flat (it was probably the first time I really appreciated how small it is), inspected every inch of my bed, the furniture, the books on my nightstand. I kept waiting to find a huge, ugly infestation. But I found nothing. I thought maybe they were hiding in the old wooden floors.
Step 1: Cleaning Everything You Own
I cleaned, vacuumed, washed all of my linens, steam-cleaned the floors (I rented steamer on Zilok), and sprinkled the non-toxic Terre de Diatomée (or diatomaceous earth) around the baseboards. I spent three days going back and forth to the laundromat with my clothes in black plastic bags (my neighbors probably thought I had bodies in there), and bagged up everything else that wasn’t essential. I pulled the bed away from the wall, placed the feet into cups full of poison and wrapped in double-side sticky tape. If they can’t eat, they can’t multiply, and I wasn’t going to let them eat me!
I thought I was out of the woods, no more bites for over a week. Experts recommend setting an alarm to wake at 3am or 4am with a bright flashlight to catch them in action. If you’ve ever had bedbugs you’ll know you never need the alarm; sleeping through the night becomes impossible. So one morning at 4am I awoke and turned on my bedside lamp only to find one right there feasting on on my arm. I was so surprised I grabbed him and he popped like a little pomegranate seed, leaving a splatter of blood in my hand. MY blood. Sorry to gross you out, but this is why people who get bed bugs are so traumatized: you can’t sleep.
Happily, I managed to eradicate the little suckers, but I didn’t do it alone. After the “splatter incident”, I decided to make an appointment first thing in the morning with professionals. I had been obsessively reading every single website about bedbugs since the first sighting, so I knew the regular aerosol bombs that people used for fleas or roaches wouldn’t work on bedbugs. Only professional treatments would do the trick. I knew this meant spraying my apartment with extremely toxic chemicals, but I tried my best to do it the non-toxic way and it hadn’t worked. And my mother was coming for Christmas!
Step 2: Extermination Services
If the cleaning and steaming ans other non-toxc methods don’t work out, you’re going to hav to call in the pros. On the stop-punaises.gouv.fr site they link to the CS3D (National Union of Exterminators) website, which has a searchable database of private extermination companies throught France. Make sure any company you hire has the “Certibiocide” label for bed bug treatment verified by the Minister of the Environment (and it should be less than five years old). There are companies in Paris who have the bedbug sniffing dogs, companies that will heat up your apartment to cook them to death, and exterminators who will come multiple times to spray and fumigate (the chemicals they use are usually not available to the general public in stores). These services can be quite expensive (several hundred to several thousand euros), so be sure you have a full devis in advance so you know what you’re in for, and what they guarantee.
Inexpensive Municipal Extermination Services
I didn’t have any personal recommendations for a reliable exterminator, so I chose to go with SMASH, an affordable option guaranteed by the City of Paris. SMASH stands for Le Service Municipal d’Actions de Salubrité et d’Hygiène, a municipal health and hygiene service that eradicates pests like rats, roaches and bedbugs (they also treat mold, collect used syringes, and maintain defibrillators in public spaces) for businesses and individuals. As of 2020, this service is now called the Service Parisien de Santé Environnementale (SPSE). It seems the service for municipal insect control is only available to low-income residents. If you’re a French taxpayer and think you qualify, check out their new website here for more information (or mention it when you call the Stop Punaises helpline listed above to get the information).
WARNING: In addition to the growing resistance bedbugs have to over-the-counter pesticides, they can be extremely dangerous to your health. So don’t be tempted to use hazardous chemicals yourself (especially on your mattress or pillows, even diatomaceous earth), get a professional.
This will likely differ depending on what service you go for, but for regular spraying you need to bag everything that’s already clean, cover any electronics and artwork that shouldn’t be misted with the spray, and completely strip the bed and mattress. My guys came in HAZMAT suits. They assured me that I could sleep there that night, but to make sure and air it out a few hours before bed.
Post-Extermination: Toxic Fumes
The down side is that even after airing out the apartment for several hours the fumes were still too strong to sleep there, so I went to a neighbor’s for the night. The old wooden floors and my hand-stuffed wool mattress had been completely doused, and needed a further week with the windows open all day (in early November) to finally smell “normal”. They recommend waiting at least two months before mopping the floors to kill any bedbugs that hatch from eggs that didn’t get destroyed by the spray. I added a special bed-bug mattress cover, and continued to sleep with the bed away from the wall and its feet in traps for the next two months until I left for the US in January for a month. After that, with still zero bedbug sightings, I finally scrubbed the floors and put the apartment back to “normal”, but continue to be vigilant, both at home and when traveling. I inspect the mattress carefully each time I change the bedding, and do the same in each hotel I visit. I’ll admit I also do inspections when I stay with friends, because you never know!
Bed bugs were virtually eliminated from France in the 1950s using DDT. With their new resistance to chemicals, the proliferation of international travel (well…pandemic withstanding), and the increasingly warm winters, they have been thriving again for the past decade, at about the same time that New York, Montreal and London were hit. So it never hurts to remain vigilant whether you think there’s a chance you’ll get them or not. Years later I still jump sky high if I mistake a little peice of black fuzz in my bed for a bug, so I’m crossing fingers for my friend. Compared to some people’s experiences I got off relatively easy, but only because I acted immediately. If you think you might have bed bugs, use the two-step approach of cleaning and treating for the best results.
If anyone else living in France has suggestions or resources for battling bedbugs, please leave a comment below.