Why Exterminator Reports are Evidence of Nothing

Hotel managers will sometimes dispute a report on this site by emailing me an exterminator's statement that a given room has been checked and found not to harbor bed bugs. In their view, a report of this kind is ironclad evidence that the room inspected is bug-free, so they are dismayed and sometimes angry to find that I don't give the statements much weight.

As I see it, there are two serious problems with treating exterminators' reports as evidence of anything:

First, it's quite possible for a skilled exterminator to examine an infested room without finding bed bugs. The insects are notoriously difficult to find when present in small numbers. Even in a room where there is no doubt of their presence, it can be impossible for an expert technician to find them without disassembling furniture. The problem is compounded in hotel rooms, which often have fixtures like headboards that are permanently fastened to the wall.

Second, not all exterminators know how to check for bed bugs. For many pest control companies, bed bugs are still an unfamiliar foe, and the level of expertise between individual inspectors varies enormously. People posting to this site have reported "inspections" in public housing that consisted of a technician going door to door in the daytime and briefly shining a flashlight under a mattress, a procedure almost designed to eliminate the chances of finding a bed bug.

They've also reported licensed exterminators applying inappropriate treatments (like room foggers) or simply not knowing how to go about looking for the insect.

A perfect example of why I don't treat exterminator reports as dispositive came just a few days ago in an email exchange I had with the Regency Hotel in Omaha. A guest had reported seeing bed bugs during her stay at the hotel, and the manager of the hotel wrote me to vigorously dispute the claim. As evidence, she included the following scan of an exterminator's report:

On the face of it, the report looks quite authoritative. The pest control company in the letterhead has been in business for many years, and works routinely with this hotel. One of their technicians came by, inspected the room, and found it to be free of bed bugs.

But if you look more closely, you'll see the entire inspection lasted 1 minute 57 seconds. Anyone who's fought bedbugs knows this is an impossibly short time to detect anything short of an overwhelming infestation. (When I pointed this out to the Regency manager, she responded that the time recorded on the report did not reflect the actual time spent looking at the room.)

From the hotel's point of view, any report on an exterminator's letterhead should serve as conclusive evidence that there was no bedbug problem. But from my point of view, it's just another piece of evidence to weigh in evaluating a claim.

We may reach a point where there is a gold standard for bed bug inspection, and I can treat a certified report as credible evidence that a hotel room is free of the pests. But we are a very long way from that being the case, and this kind of 'proof' will remain unconvincing.

Still, since hotels give them so much weight, I am working right now on a way to upload scanned PCO reports directly to the site, and let readers make up their own minds.