Books are no better hosts for bacteria and viruses than many other objects. All pathogens need a critical mass for an exposed person to become infected. Chances are you won’t bring home any unwanted guests.
An outbreak of bedbugs at the library in a fictional correction facility in “Orange is the New Black” prompted officials on the TV show to burn all its books. That might seem extreme, but infestations in real-life libraries pop up in the news cycle as well. Last week, a Delaware library had the critters rear their tiny heads. Alicia Leytem, pesticide specialist at the National Pesticide Information Center at Oregon State University, and Michael Z. David, an assistant professor of medicine, specializing in infectious disease, at the University of Chicago, explain what other unwanted guests might hitchhike home from your local reading room on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
The Worthless Pests
Many insects like to hide out in tight, dark places. But a couple of types of beetles—often, appropriately, called bookworms—also feed on the cellulose in paper, leaving behind holes, spots or dust. The term bookworms can also refer to silverfish and cockroaches “who like the glue that binds pages together,” says Ms. Leytem. Since these bugs don’t transmit disease, they shouldn’t be much cause for alarm, she says.
The Biting Bugs
Bedbugs don’t spread disease either, but you don’t want the parasitic insects setting up residence in your home. Bedbugs come out to feed when their potential hosts are still and quiet, like at a library. They can live for as many as four months in a room-temperature environment without feeding, and up to a year if the room is cool and damp, says Ms. Leytem. Still, the National Pesticide Information Center, which gets more than 10,000 calls a year from the public asking about health, safety and risks associated with pests and pesticides, “has only gotten one call in the past year where the caller was pretty sure she had gotten the bedbugs from a library book,” she says.
For worrywarts, Ms. Leytem suggests simply opening up a book, shaking it a little and then blowing down the spine. Bedbugs “don’t like jostling,” she says. If you’re still concerned, or your library has had an infestation, put the book in a cloth bag to carry it home, then remove the book and put the bag in the dryer for 30 minutes, she says. “That will kill any bugs or eggs.”
Ms. Leytem says she personally doesn’t worry about infesting her bed through library books, since she’s always monitoring her home for the critters. “My favorite place to read is in bed,” she says.
Food for Thought
Books are no better hosts for bacteria and viruses than many other objects, says Dr. David. A couple of reports have surfaced citing the presence of herpes on certain high-circulation books, but no one has reported being infected by those books, he says.
Studies have been done on how long pathogens can survive on paper, says Dr. David. Viruses can live for many days under the right circumstances, while bacteria like staph can live even longer, maybe for weeks, he says. “But I have never heard of anyone catching anything from a library book.”