'A hotelier's nightmare" - that's what the general manager of the Statler Hotel at Cornell University calls bedbugs.
A University of Kentucky entomology professor puts it this way: "Bedbugs are kind of like Ebola with six legs - it causes a really strong emotional reaction with people."
In Philadelphia, their presence precipitated the formation this year of the Bed Bug Task Force, said member Marty Overline, a professional bug battler for 37 years. Chances are that bedbug infestation could get worse next month, when a million-plus people from around the world are expected to descend on Center City for the pope's visit, filling hotels, inns, even private homes offering rooms for rent.
Besides luggage, some visitors likely will be toting the blood-loving pests, which thrive under the covers and can kill hotel occupancy with a mention on the breeding ground known as social media.
No Secret Service perimeter will keep them out. But a mild-mannered Montgomery County businessman with degrees from Amherst, Oxford and Harvard says he has a line of defense.
"This should be on everybody's bed who's putting somebody up," said Allergy Technologies founder H. Augustus "Gus" Carey.
He was referring to his company's ActiveGuard, believed to be the only insecticide-impregnated mattress liners that can prevent and control bedbugs for up to two years. No sprays. No insect-detection canines. No encasements that trap bedbugs on mattresses and box springs while you sleep - until they rip.
"We're looking to change the landscape of bedbug treatment for hotels, colleges, senior assisted living, for shelters, and we think we do," Carey said. "That's what people tell us."
But on the topic of bedbugs, consensus is hard to find, from whether infestations truly are on the rise to whether anyone has the answer to insects we've been warned since childhood not to let bite us.
"There's no magic bullet about bedbugs," said Michael Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky, currently engaged in research on how the risk of bedbugs influences consumer preferences for choosing a hotel.
"While there's lots of different tools being cobbled together, both insecticide-wise, education-wise, catching-the-problem-early-wise, the consumer wants to have something quick, easy, and such a thing doesn't exist with this particular bug," Potter said.
It is a bug "alive and well out there" due to a combination of factors, he said, citing a preponderance of travel, classes of insecticides no longer on the market, and "risky practices" such as using secondhand furniture, "pulling stuff off curbs."
Carey's initial goal was not to take on an insect that's been on a voracious reemergence in the United States since the late 1990s, after being virtually eradicated 65 years ago by the now-banned DDT.
"The very last thing I thought I'd be is Mr. Bedbug," he said in his office overlooking the SEPTA train station in Ambler, where he and his wife, Jenny Rose, also live.
Carey, 58, had set out to bring relief to asthmatics - after an unrelated career.
With degrees in Asian studies, management studies, and advanced management, Carey went to work in 1984 as a loan officer in the North American department of Kleinwort Benson Ltd. in London. He returned to the United States in 1987 to work with the family firm, W.P. Carey & Co., and four real estate investment trusts it sponsored.
In 2001, he founded Allergy Technologies to manufacture products addressing issues with impact on the environment and health care.
Motivated by a desire to help those suffering from asthma breathe more easily - the condition is known to have environmental triggers - Carey by 2005 purchased the assets of two competing companies in London that had been working on bedding products to kill dust mites.
With regulatory hurdles high for making health claims, Carey said, he instead followed the suggestion of an EPA official to consider the effectiveness of his company's mattress liners on bedbugs.
Permethrin, the chemical they are treated with, is used in mosquito netting, lice shampoos, outdoor-recreational clothing, and uniforms worn by military troops in places where bugs are prevalent, such as jungles. The chemical is overseen by both the EPA and FDA.
Based on years of research, including some that Allergy Technologies has funded at Ohio State University, the EPA has assigned ActiveGuard mattress covers the mildest toxicity rating, requiring no cautionary warning labels, said Joseph Latino, president of Allergy Technologies and a biochemist with more than 20 years' experience in science and pest control.
Made of a light polyester fabric and resembling a fitted sheet, ActiveGuard renders bedbugs no longer able to bite and females incapable of dropping their eggs within 10 minutes of contact. Death generally occurs within 72 hours, Latino said.
The company would not disclose its revenues. Its liners, which come in four sizes, range from $115 to $170. (For more: http://allergytechnologies.com.)
As president of Aardvark Pest Management in Frankford, whose clients include a number of the city's hospitals and universities, Overline has installed "hundreds" of ActiveGuard liners, calling them "one of the most valuable tools for bedbug management."
Richard D. Adie, who runs the 153-room Statler Hotel at Cornell - a school renown for its hospitality program - has been using ActiveGuard liners for five years.
"We have not yet had a confirmed bedbug since the product went in," Adie said.
Before 2010, the hotel had two reports, one confirmed, he said, adding: "Maybe it's my good luck, or maybe the product is fabulous. I'm doing something that's proactive."
Doing nothing could be costly, according to research findings released in July by the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
An online survey of 2,088 travelers showed that a single report of bedbugs lowers the value of a hotel room by $38 and $23 per room per night for business and leisure travelers, respectively. Among various problems encountered in hotel rooms, finding signs of bedbugs had the largest proportion of survey respondents switching hotels.
"It's a hugely important factor in terms of that booking decision," said Potter, one of the researchers who contends that there's no single solution.
The study was partly funded by Protect-a-Bed, a global producer of protective bedding products, including mattress and box spring encasements for bedbug entrapment and blockage.
Unlike encasements, ActiveGuard liners can continue to kill bedbugs, even if torn, because of their permethrin treatment, Carey said.
Unwilling to comment specifically on ActiveGuard, Potter said of pesticide-impregnated mattress liners in general: "It may be an arrow in the quiver, but it takes a whole lot more to deal with this problem."