Crows, leafblowers, incessant construction, parking and traffic problems and new airplane flight paths. They've all riled up segments of Palo Alto residents over the years and are considered by many as nuisances detrimental to the healthy living we all desire and expect in a town where the average home price is pushing $2 million.
But now a new threat is on the loose, one that could forever change the world's perception of Palo Alto as a vibrant and healthy oasis with a quality of life worthy of its inflated real estate prices. OMG, our two brand new libraries have found a few bed bugs, just like the questionable motel you may have once been stranded in on a cross-country trip.
No sooner was the city's announcement made about bed bugs at the Mitchell Park library last week than some know-it-all online posters rushed to blame the poor hygiene of library visitors for the problem, in particular calling out the homeless as carriers of the critters. Others suggested on Town Square, the Weekly's online reader forum, that proof of Palo Alto residency be required to enter our libraries, just as it is at Foothills Park.
After all, no upstanding Palo Alto resident could be a source for bed bugs.
Then on Tuesday, bug-sniffing dogs discovered bed bugs on two chairs at the Rinconada Library, forcing it to close for a day. An inspection of the Downtown Library was scheduled for today.
Meanwhile Berkeley's main library announced it too was dealing with a bed bug problem.
All of a sudden, Palo Alto's bed bug problem was on the TV news and the brunt of predictable jokes.
As it turns out, bed bugs are a major problem for libraries everywhere, and many libraries have developed protocols for dealing with them. A public heath entomologist at the University of Arizona, Dawn Gouge, is quoted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal as calling bed bugs a "national crisis."
She said that if a library says bed bugs aren't a concern, it's likely they are in denial or unaware of the issue.
A New York Times article in 2012 described how bed bugs live and lay eggs in the spines of hard-cover books, and then unsuspecting book borrowers bring the bugs into their homes, often placing the books on the nightstands next to their beds.
Similarly, bed bugs already in a home can hop onto a library book and then be transported into the library when returned.
Some libraries have purchased systems for killing bed bugs by placing books in a portable heater set at 150 degrees, above the 115 degree temperature at which the bugs will die after seven minutes. Some enterprising engineering students at University of Nevada Las Vegas even designed a solar-powered book drop for a competition, bought 75 bed bugs online (hard to imagine the market for bed bugs) and successfully tested it. The students are applying for a patent for the device.
According to the Times' story, the Cincinnati public library system has purchased 48 "PackTite" heaters for $300 and equipped each of its 41 branches.
The scientific name for bed bugs is Cimex lectulrius. They are wingless and large enough to easily be seen, about the size of the tip of a pencil eraser. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bed bugs aren't known for spreading disease, though their bites can cause an allergic reaction. Bites can also be invisible, making it difficult to realize that the resulting itching is because of a bite and that the bugs are active. The bugs breed and lurk in hidden places (like book spines) and can live for several months without eating (they feed exclusively on blood and prefer human blood).
The CDC says it is a myth that bed bugs are more common in unclean environments, so Palo Altans can rest assured that bed bugs in the library are not a reflection on our collective cleanliness.
All joking aside, Palo Alto library officials deserve credit for their transparency in notifying the public of this problem and moving quickly to address it. It would have been easy and tempting to deal with these small infestations quietly and without any announcements to the media. They wisely chose instead to weather the inevitable publicity and simply treat it as any other minor disruption to services that causes inconvenience to patrons.
And now, we suggest Palo Altans check those books that are piled bedside and consider warming up anything suspicious in the oven for a few minutes at 150 degrees.