It is a long-held practice of mattress retailers. Customers who aren't happy with the comfort of their new bed could simply return it, even months later, no questions asked.
That practice, though, is disappearing at some stores because of bloodsucking bed bugs. At least two Canadian mattress retailers have scrapped their comfort-exchange programs, pointing to escalating infestations as the primary reason.
Jordanna Caine, president of Simmons Mattress Gallery stores in Nova Scotia, said customers over the past year have become increasingly leery of returned merchandise, as reports of bed bugs invading Canadian and American homes spread. Although the insect has not been detected in the company's mattresses, exchanges of slept-on beds were halted earlier this month.
Ms. Caine hopes other retailers follow suit.
"It's clearly a concern for people," she said. "Obviously, we don't want to put our warehouse, our trucks, and our customers at risk."
Eliminating mattress exchanges is one of a bevy of tactics being deployed to combat bed bugs. All but eradicated in the developed world in the 1940s, the insect has made a pesky comeback. Experts point to several reasons, including greater foreign travel, pesticide resistance and a growth in the used-furniture market.
Health Canada doesn't keep national statistics on bed-bug reports, but infestations have affected provinces across the country. Ontario recently committed $5-million to help public health agencies tackle the problem, while Manitoba is drafting a bed bug strategy that will see every municipality participate.
Bed bugs have turned up in range of buildings, from apartment rentals to high-end hotels. In northern Saskatchewan last November, they were detected in a hospital, prompting a major cleanup and weeks of monitoring. It's believed the insects were carried in on patients.
In the United States, the insect has been the subject of two government-organized summits, the latest one held in Washington last month.
The bed bug problem is expected to worsen. A recent Ohio State University Study found that the bug's numbers in North America have increased as much as 500 per cent in the past decade, costing businesses and homeowners billions of dollars annually to deal with the outbreaks.
Jeffrey White, a research entomologist with the U.S. firm BedBug Central, said many industries are rethinking their practices in light of the insect's resurgence. About the size of an apple seed, bed bugs bite and feed off blood, but there's no evidence they spread disease.
"Bed bugs are going to change the way many of our industries and parts of our society function," Mr. White said. "We have gone for the last 60 years without seeing bed bugs, and so a lot of our policies, protocols and procedures have not been created with bed bugs in mind."
Mr. White believes eliminating mattress exchanges is a prudent move, but Reg Ayre, a manager with Toronto Public Health, contends the value of the measure is debatable.
"It certainly will protect a retailer from any accusations that they are spreading bed bugs through this kind of used-furniture process," he said. "Is it going to make an overall difference to the bed-bug project? I think there are other ways of doing it."
Prevention and early detection are key, Mr. Ayre said. He noted used mattresses can be treated with steam or covered in bug-proof encasements made of vinyl or terry cloth.
Retailer Mattress Mattress, which has 16 stores in Western Canada, scrapped its comfort-exchange program in November because of escalating concerns about bed bugs in cities.
"The concern on the bed-bug issue is that you can't always see an infestation. Eggs aren't visible," said vice-president Lori Fecho.
The company has raised the issue of mattress sales with the Canadian General Standards Board, a federal government body responsible for developing commercial standards. Ms. Fecho said the firm believes a national standard is needed to govern the return and sale of used mattresses.
The board has referred the matter to Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.