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Tales from Hong Kong’s bed bug exterminator: Is the emotional trauma worse than the pests?

[Sponsored] Bed bugs may be minuscule, but these hardy blood-suckers have a monstrous reputation.  Infestations have been on the rise globally in recent decades, and Hong Kong’s dense urban environment has proven a particularly suitable place for the unwelcome parasites to thrive: hitching rides to new homes on clothing, luggage and skin, or spreading throughout buildings via wall ducts, vents and electrical sockets.

“We’ve been called out to kill bed bugs in hotels, coffee shops, restaurants, hair salons and on aeroplanes,” says Francisco Pazos, founder of Nobedbugs-HK and a local pest control technician with over 10 years’ experience. “We’ve been to hospitals, to elderly care homes. I’ve seen them in cinemas, in taxis, on the MTR. They are everywhere. Hong Kong is a paradise for them.”

bed bugs hong kong exterminator

Francisco Pazos, founder of Nobedbugs-HK.

While official figures for bed bug outbreaks in Hong Kong are hard to come by (social stigma means self-reporting rates are low), Pazos points out that “other technicians all agree that the number of cases is increasing.” It’s a chilling thought, particularly if you’d ever assumed that bed bugs are only endured by the unkempt.

“People will think you are dirty if you have bed bugs,” says Pazos, shaking his head. “But bed bugs prefer a clean home. They are not the most athletic insect, so it’s harder for them to get around if it’s dirty.”

Bed bugs make their homes in mattresses and bedding, coming out at night to inflict small, itchy bites on humans as they sleep. Bed bugs don’t transmit diseases. Instead, it is emotional trauma that often takes the biggest toll on their victims: insomnia, nightmares, hypervigilance, flashbacks, paranoia, anxiety, stress and depression are all commonly seen in those suffering from bed bugs – effects that have been compared to PTSD by researchers.

It is frequently the most vulnerable in Hong Kong society: those living in subdivided flats, who are more susceptible to infestation and have limited financial resources to pay for professional pest control, who end up suffering the most.

One single female bed bug can cause an infestation of hundreds of thousands within six months, meaning rapid treatment is imperative once bed bugs are found in an apartment. When administered correctly, this can be remarkably effective. But professional treatments are expensive – Nobedbugs-HK’s strategies are powerful and long-lasting, but their fees range widely depending on the severity of infestation and size of the property, with a typical elimination treatment costing anywhere from HK$5,000 to HK$15,000. Many citizens, when faced with the prospect of such bills, are tempted to try and handle the issue themselves.

bed bugs hong kong exterminator

“Around half of our customers have already tried to kill their bedbugs with off-the-shelf insecticides, insect bombs, cheaper pest control companies and so on,” Pazos says. “By the time they get to us, the problem is much worse. When you start using insecticides or essential oils as repellents, bed bugs will move away to the walls and spread around the room. Once they get resistant to the products you use, they’ll all come back at the same time.”

During a call-out, it takes Pazos and the Nobedbugs-HK team around an hour to do an initial inspection. Of this, it takes Pazos “five to 10 minutes” to spot the tell-tale signs: generally black dots on bedding, indicative of the bugs’ faecal matter. So what happens for the next 50 minutes? “Reassurances!” he says. “Telling them that it’s ok, that we can kill the bugs, that they don’t need to worry any more.”

The relief that comes from hearing this news is frequently overwhelming for people who have been fighting a losing battle against bed bugs for months or even years. “I just came today from a home that has had bed bugs for over a year,” Pazos continues. “Four people, a whole family, living in a 250-sq-ft unit. They have millions of bedbugs. I didn’t even need to search for them. When we confirmed we could do the treatment tomorrow, the mother just started crying. In this job, dealing with bed bugs is much easier than dealing with people’s mental states.”

Indeed, Pazos has witnessed some of the city’s most underprivileged people resorting to extreme measures in their desperation to eliminate bed bugs from their homes.

bed bugs hong kong exterminator

“Every week we see people who have thrown away their bed, their sofa, their furniture; everything,” he says. “People sleeping in their bathtub; whole families sleeping in the living room in sleeping bags. It’s crazy how much it affects people. Yesterday I went for a second visit to the home of a taxi driver. He’d thrown away everything, bought a sunbed, and was sleeping on the sunbed. It’s not even something that surprises me anymore. I see it so often.”

Such prospects sound bleak. But Pazos insists that a bed bug infestation can be managed with minimal upheaval, if done correctly. “One of the first things I tell people is ‘You don’t need to throw anything away. You don’t need to destroy your home; you don’t need to make your life even more miserable. Not now we are here.’ We’ll tell them that in the first five minutes.”

The secret? Pazos and Nobedbugs-HK have developed a uniquely efficient heat treatment, which raises an apartment’s temperature to 60 degrees for three hours, thereby killing all bed bugs in one go. The company is also the only one in Hong Kong to offer an eco-friendly, amorphous silica-based insecticide treatment, which dehydrates the critters and halts their lifecycle without any dangerous chemicals. With a 99.9% success rate and a year-long warranty, Nobedbugs-HK has come to be known as the most effective bed bug control agency in the city, and Pazos now offers his advice and expertise to other companies worldwide.

bed bugs hong kong exterminator

“We’ll always come back if people are worried about new bites after a treatment,” he explains. “Frequently, we’ll get called back out because someone has had bed bugs in the past and they think they’ve had more bites, but they haven’t – nothing has bitten them. It’s hallucinatory; a condition called delusional parasitosis. People still suffer, even long after the bugs are gone.”

Pazos is aware of the difficulty that some people have in paying for his services, and is proud of the work Nobedbugs-HK does with NGOs including Po Leung Kuk, offering cost-price treatments for vulnerable families suffering extreme infestations. “For a lot of people, our charges are a big part of their monthly salary,” he says. “It’s so hard for them to deal with this problem. [Helping them] is a big part of the motivation for us. It is one of the best things ever when you go back to someone’s home after seeing them in tears just two or three weeks ago, and now they have the biggest smile.”

Unfortunately, there are no real strategies for ensuring you’ll never catch bed bugs, aside from getting rid of all your possessions and sleeping in the bathtub. Nobedbugs-HK does offer a preventative silica powder treatment, which Pazos describes as akin to a vaccination – “it can’t stop you getting them altogether, but it will mean it’s not as bad.”

bed bugs hong kong exterminator

Francisco Pazos, founder of Nobedbugs-HK.

Instead, vigilance and an acceptance that bed bugs aren’t fussy about who they crash with are some of the most important tools for ensuring a bad infestation doesn’t take hold in the first place. “It’s impossible to say any home couldn’t get bed bugs,” says Pazos. “I have been to the cheapest homes in Hong Kong, and I have been to the most expensive. I was talking recently to a man who has recently got bed bugs, and he told me: ‘Well, I have a Tesla! So it must have been my driver’.” Pazos takes a thoughtful pause before adding: “I learn a lot about people doing this job.”

Tales from Hong Kong's bed bug exterminator: Is the emotional trauma worse than the pests?