Leaving 'ick' to the pros who pick nits

PHILADELPHIA — Nancy Harris will never forget the horror of that Christmas two years ago.

While the family was opening gifts, her then-7-year-old daughter was scratching her neck. Harris parted Emily's thick, long locks and found a full-blown infestation of lice.

"It was disgusting. Awful. Awful," said Harris, 49, who lives in Wayne, N.J. That morning, she spent three hours picking out the bugs — 18 live ones.

That's why, when Harris recently heard about an outbreak at Emily's school, in the neighborhood, and at the family's church, she swiftly dialed Lice Happens — a new mobile lice-removal service.

This time, her child would be screened by Emily Betterly, a pro, and when she received that clean bill of hair, well, Harris knew she could trust it. "It was well worth it," she said of the half-hour, $50 visit.

Lice Happens of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., is one of the newest nitpickers-for-hire to join an expanding industry.

Adept lice-spotters equipped with magnifying gear, fine-tooth combs, and delousing concoctions are relieving parents of the tedious (and let's be honest, gross) job of ridding children of the creepy-crawlies — starting at $100 an hour.

"It can happen to anyone, anywhere," said Gordine Miller of Lice and Nit Removal Services, which has been open about a year and charges $175 a head.

"Someone called me last night at 10:30 p.m. She said, 'Please. I have bugs. They're driving me crazy.' "

The head louse, smaller than a sesame seed, is a parasitic insect that lives close to the scalp and feeds on human blood. Each year, an estimated 6 million to 12 million infestations occur in the United States among children 3 to 11 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Treatments include over-the-counter and prescription hair products that contain insecticides to kill the adult lice. But the bugs are tough to fight. Experts say they are becoming resistant to the established medications. And some researchers are concerned about neurological effects of the chemicals.

Besides, even if the shampoos exterminate the adult lice, only a really thorough comb-out gets rid of the eggs. Miss a few nits and the cycle starts all over again.

"You have to go through every strand of hair," Miller said. "You cannot shortcut this job."

That takes patience and inevitably causes frustration. Many districts have no-nit policies, meaning children cannot return to school until they are free of the microscopic, brownish eggs.

In this time-strapped age of two working parents, most mothers (the task usually falls to them) would rather do just about anything than stay home and comb.

So of course, it was only a matter of time before on-the-go nitpickers, often with catchy names like NitWits or Hair Whisperers, emerged. Although it's hard to track the exact number of bug fighters out there — no license or credential is required to open this kind of business — a lice education association says their ranks are proliferating.

"Every other day there's another one of these," said Deborah Altschuler, president of the National Pediculosis Association, a nonprofit in Newton, Mass.

She welcomed an option that focuses on combing out lice rather than using insecticide treatments, which the organization opposes.

But Altschuler also voiced concerns. "Who are these people?" she asked. "There needs to be some regulation."

Betterly, who opened Lice Happens in March, was an environmental scientist turned stay-at-home mom. Then her college roommate, M.J. Eckert, joined a neighbor in Annapolis, Md., to open Lice Happens early this year. Betterly was asked to join but passed.

The next day, her daughter, Victoria, 9 now, got lice, and an alarmed Betterly raced the girl to Annapolis.

Eckert, a nurse, handed her friend the lice comb and said: "She's your first client."

Since then, Betterly has combed more than 400 customers.

"You go to a cocktail party and people ask, 'What do you do?' " Betterly said. When she tells them, they often step back before saying "Ewww!"

Even husband Chris, 52, supportive of the venture, was wary when Betterly brought home plastic bags of picked lice. True, they were dead, but "I could just picture vermin all over the place," he said. He insisted she keep her tools outside the house and not use the pot in which she boils the combs for anything else.

"There is still horrible stigma," Betterly said. Lice are assumed to signal poor hygiene. In reality, the insects prefer clean hair, she said.