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facts & arguments

The Associated Press

Several months ago, just before the news of the spread of bedbugs went viral, my partner found a beautiful IKEA bunk bed, complete with mattress, on a neighbouring street.

Normally critical of my garbage-picking habit, he was excited about how our eldest daughter would react to his find: "It's just what she's been wanting. She'll love it!"

We looked the bed over carefully and found no sign of infestation and so, reasoning naively that none of our neighbours would put infested furniture out without labelling it, we set the bed up in our daughter's room.

She did indeed love it, and for three weeks we patted our backs in thrifty good-parent cheer - until one night she came running into our room at 3 a.m. crying hysterically, "There's a bug!"

The next morning, we saw blood smears on her pillow, and when I stripped the bed, I caught a small bug that squirted reddish fluid. Yup. We had bedbugs.

Within minutes of this realization, we had carted the mattress down the stairs and out the back door. It took another 15 minutes or so to disassemble the frame and move it into the garage. In retrospect, we should have bagged the items before jogging them down the stairs, possibly dislodging bugs and spreading them to the living room and kitchen. But even if we'd known this at the time, I'm not sure we could have waited. I needed to get that bed out of the house.

Guilt, anger and disgust are strong motivators, and the first week after we discovered the little beasties, our house was a whirlwind of activity. After getting rid of the bed, we jettisoned almost half our extensive book collection. The rest are sitting in boxes, having been individually vacuumed.

Every stuffed animal, fairy costume and pair of rainbow underwear went through the dryer on hot. So did every pillow, pillowcase, sheet, duvet, duvet cover and towel. The toys disappeared into bins in the garage, sprayed with alcohol on their way in and now quarantined.

Bins were stacked on every closet shelf, and for weeks the dining-room table held a bin for each member of the family with only the most essential clothes.

I've discovered the delights of vacuum-storage bags that let you load up a large plastic bag with extra duvets and pillows, non-seasonal clothes and anything else not in active use, then fit the vacuum hose and watch them shrink into hard, wrinkled bricks of unidentifiable stuff. We have a stack of them, like firewood, in the basement, and the girls, deprived of their usual toys, are using them to build forts. I periodically wonder if they are good for anything else. Maybe we could line the walls for additional insulation?

After we emptied dressers, closets and bookshelves, we moved all the furniture away from the wall so that the youthful exterminator could spray the baseboards. He admired our efforts and pronounced our infestation mild.

The previous week, he told us, a mother had paid him $200 to move her son's queen-size bed down 10 flights of stairs and out of their apartment building. After moving the bed, which was literally crawling with bugs, he took a long hot shower, then borrowed some of the son's clothes to go home in.

After cheering us up with this tale, he then irritated me by intoning smugly as he left, "It's all about good housekeeping now. Vacuum the whole house, including the bottom half of the walls, every day for the next six weeks." Since when, I ask you, has good housekeeping included daily wall vacuuming?

We've now been bug-free - or maybe I should say symptom-free - for just over two months, and we're gradually getting back to normal. I've taken the bins off the dining-room table, returned the clothes that were in them to dresser drawers and taken out the minimum of winter wear.

And we've noticed something: We like living with less stuff. The surfaces of tables, shelves and floors gleam in uncluttered glory. My daughter can find her purple polka-dot stockings without the contents of her whole drawer ending up on the floor, and the few remaining bits of Tupperware all have matching lids. It's a new and improved normal.

There are other positives. The books are still in boxes because we realized it was the perfect time for some home improvement. We've wanted to repaint the baby-blue walls in our book-lined office, but couldn't face the job of carting away all those dusty volumes. The bugs energized us and now the walls are free. Maybe it's time for new carpeting too?

My current thinking is that bedbugs aren't that bad. Sure, they suck your blood, but so do mosquitoes. They don't carry any major diseases. They don't scuttle when you turn the kitchen light on. They don't destroy your clothes and they can, with serious effort, be eradicated.

And, frankly, they have an upside. A major challenge of contemporary life is keeping stuff at bay, and bedbugs are an incentive like no other to scour the house, throw out old clothes, books and toys, and finally buy organizing bins and use them.

While the idea that they are gradually infiltrating public places and may soon be everywhere is deeply disturbing, it also offers the reassuring promise of motivation to tidy and clean. I'm storing bins in the basement as we empty them, knowing that there's a chance they'll be used again.

Sarah King lives in Toronto.