So you think you got bitten by something at the cinema… What was it?

Rachel Chan

In between being bombarded by sound and light from the silver screen, as well as snatching handfuls of popcorn from your buddy, you thought you felt it: an insect bite.

But was it or wasn’t it? What may have started as an itchy sensation in one spot has mushroomed into a suspicious rash by the end of the movie, no thanks to your incessant scratching. After all, you couldn’t help being bugged by one thought: Are there… *gulp* bed bugs?

Last month, patrons of Golden Village and a certain budget airline complained quite publicly that they believed that they had been bitten by bugs at the cinema and while on a board a plane, respectively. In their responses to the media, spokespersons from GV and the budget airline both said that they had made their investigations, and that no bugs were detected.

But too late. The negative publicity opened the floodgates to every Tom, Dick and Harry who imagined that they had also been bitten by bugs in the cinema halls, leading one to question the cinemas’ standards of hygiene and cleanliness.

So, are there really bloodsucking insects lurking in the cushy depths of the cinema seats? And if it isn’t bugs, what could it be? In response to The Popping Post’s queries, Golden Village invited us to one of their cinemas for a chat with their pest solutions operator, and to catch them in action.

It was early on a weekday morning that Ms Yeoh Boon Hoi, an operations manager from Express Pest Solutions (EPS), met us at GV Bishan with her colleagues in tow to show us what they do when bug complaints are received from GV’s patrons. Ms Yeoh, an entomologist by training (she is a Master of Science in Urban & Industrial Entomology from the Universiti Sains Malaysia), as well as a representative from GV, cleared the air and shed light on five myths and misconceptions about cinemas as breeding ground for bed bugs, bugs, and bug bites.

1. You can tell what insect has bitten you from the marks on your skin.

 

The tropical bed bug, or Cimex hemipterus. (Image credit: Researchgate.net)

The tropical bed bug, or Cimex hemipterus. (Image credit: Researchgate.net)

Not necessarily, Ms Yeoh said. “A reaction to an insect bite varies from person to person. On one it may appear as a welt, on another it may appear as a rash.” The reason why your skin swells is because it is an allergic reaction (to the insect’s saliva), and everyone’s body mounts a different response.

2. Food residue attracts bed bugs.

The popcorn at GV's candy stands is freshly popped every morning.

The popcorn at GV’s candy stands is freshly popped every morning.

False. It’s a most common misconception that cleanliness is related to the presence of bed bugs. “Food residue can lead to cockroaches and rodents, but is not associated with bed bugs,” Ms Yeoh said. Bed bugs are hitchhikers and travel with a host. If bed bugs show up anywhere, it is because they have crawled – not hopped, by the way, as they cannot hop – onto their host’s luggage and then crawled off after the luggage was set down in a different environment.

“Studies have shown that on their own, bed bugs travel up to only 40 metres in five days,” said Ms Yeoh. Therefore, if bed bugs are found in a location, it means that someone brought them there. Unlike pests like ants, cockroaches, and rodents, bed bugs are not organically attracted to food waste and litter. “They like to nest near their host – in beds, headboards, and mattress box springs, to be close to their food source,” she added.

But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t feel guilty about upsetting that box of popcorn at the last movie you watched. An unbelievable amount of trash gets left behind by patrons who seem to think that they are God’s gift to professional cleaners (“If I don’t leave my trash on my seat, they’d be out of a job”), which was why GV launched a Just Bin It campaign back in 2015.

3. Bed bugs are less likely found in leather seats than fabric seats.

This school of thought suggests that bed bugs prefer the textured surface of fabric to the smooth surface of leather. After all, its namesake, the bed, is covered in fabric. So, it makes sense that it would choose to make its home in more familiar environs, right? No. As it turns out, bed bugs don’t mind what sort of upholstery its host uses.

Bed bugs found in the seams of sofa upholstery by EPS technicians on another client's site (NOT GV). (Image credit: EPS)

Bed bugs found in the seams of what appears to be a suitcase, by EPS technicians on another client’s site (NOT GV). (Image credit: EPS)

“They do need a coarse surface as a nesting ground for their eggs. But even the box springs of a sofa or mattress can serve as their breeding ground,” said Ms Yeoh.

4. Cinema halls harbour a lot of dirt, trash, and bugs, but we can’t see them because they are poorly lit.

When the credits of the last movie have rolled and suitably entertained patrons file out of the GV theatres, all the lights come on and the  cinema elves  midnight cleaning crew emerges to perform their tasks.

Armed with a vacuum cleaner and the appropriate attachments, she cleans the entire surface of every seat in the cinema halls.

Armed with a vacuum cleaner and the appropriate attachments, Zhao Mei, a cleaner with GV, cleans the entire surface of every seat in the cinema halls.

Even the crumbs which have fallen between cracks are not forgotten.

Even the crumbs which have fallen between cracks are not forgotten.

Armed with vacuum cleaners, they scour every seat and the carpet for stray crumbs and litter. Their job takes them until the wee hours of the morning, and they knock off in time before the cinemas throw open their doors for the first screening of the day. They also throw out all the leftover popcorn at the candy stands and clean the popcorn bins.

The surfaces behind the candy stand look clean enough to eat off of.

The surfaces behind the candy stand look clean enough to eat off of.

As for pest control, EPS conducts a routine monthly inspection on all of GV’s cinemas. Complaints about bug bites are forwarded to EPS, which then conducts an investigation on the affected cinema.

Firstly, the technicians will use flashlights to meticulously inspect the allegedly affected seats for signs of bed bug eggs, cast skins, and live bed bugs in the seams. Then, they will spread out to check the surrounding seats.

“Normally, if we don’t find any bed bugs, nothing further is done. We then issue a written report on our findings. We most commonly receive complaints of bed bugs, but we have almost never found any in our investigations,” said Ms Yeoh.

However, on the day of our interview, GV requested that EPS perform an Indoor Ultra Low Volume (ULV) Misting session for preventative purposes. A diluted solution of a broad-spectrum chemical called Temprid, which contains the active ingredients Imidacloprid and beta-cyfluthrin, is used in the process and is said to kill even bed bug eggs. This took almost an hour as the technicians misted the GV Bishan premises. The seats, carpet, curtains, and the skirting of each hall, as well as the common corridors, were all sprayed with this odourless chemical. When asked if EPS had found any insects to kill that day, Ms Yeoh replied, “This is done for our client’s peace of mind, not because we have found bugs.”

An Express Pest Solutions technician conducts Indoor ULV Misting in a cinema hall at GV Bishan

An Express Pest Solutions technician conducts Indoor ULV Misting in a cinema hall at GV Bishan.

Pest control technicians checking that they have left no stone unturned and no inch of carpet unmisted.

Pest control technicians checking that they have left no stone unturned and no inch of carpet unmisted.

Is the chemical safe? Yes, it is safe, said Ms Yeoh, at the recommended dilution rate of 2 ml per 1 litre of water. The affected hall or halls will be closed to the public for 30 minutes to an hour for ventilation, after the misting is done. So far, EPS has not received any reports on allergic reactions towards Temprid.

5. So, what could your “bite” at the cinema be?

What did EPS find when they investigated GV City Square, which was ground zero for the complaint published in The Straits Times?

“We didn’t find any bugs. But we did find a single strand of hair poking out of the upholstery of the seat. That might have been ticklish,” said Ms Yeoh.

Persisting, this writer asked, “But the lady who claimed to have been bitten posted pictures of her skin; it looked like a rash. Are you saying that a strand of hair might have caused it?”

Her reply: “We can’t say conclusively whether that rash is a result of an insect bite or not. It could even have been an allergic reaction to dust mites. Dust mites multiply very quickly and are difficult to completely eradicate.”

“And sometimes, when we imagine that we have been bitten – even when we have not – just thoughts of it can trigger a physiological reaction that manifests itself as a rash. A more serious related condition is called delusional parasitosis.”

After seeing the pest exterminators in action, and learning about how the cinemas’ cleaners painstakingly refresh the halls night after night, it does seem that there are quite a few unsung heroes we owe our thanks to! After reading this article, what do you think it was that “bit” you?

Sources: Researchgate.net

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