Richard Pollack is a public health entomologist, which means he studies insects. He has researched these tiny creatures for more than three decades, including 22 years at the Harvard School of Public Health.
"I just found it more interesting to work with things that find me attractive: lice, bedbugs, ticks, and so forth," he says. "Things that tend to salivate when they get close to us."
But that doesn't mean Pollack spends all his time in the lab. Rather, it means he delves into specimens.
"All right, so in this file cabinet here — this disheveled cabinet — this represents just the last month or two or so of specimens sent in for evaluation," he says.
The specimens are things that people — regular, everyday people — believe to be bugs. And Pollack's self-appointed job is to identify the objects for these strangers. Usually, it's dander or a mass of carpet fibers. Occasionally there's a bug, but it's often harmless. Over the years, Pollack has accumulated letters and emails from all over the world.
"I have thousands and thousands and thousands," he says.
Pollack has replied to every single one. All these pen pals are due to a finding he made years ago. Back in the early '90s, Pollack needed head lice to study in his lab. So he and his colleagues went louse hunting at schools around the country.
"We received many, many reports that head lice were readily shared child-to-child, making these leaps in a single bound from one head to another," he says. "And the picture they painted was that I should maybe wear hip boots and bring buckets ... the lice were so abundant."
But they weren't. It turned out these head lice epicenters didn't exist. Often Pollack couldn't turn up a single louse.
"Yeah, actually, some of them — it was like fishing stories," he says. "You should've been here yesterday or you should've been here last week."
It was this finding — that school officials routinely exaggerate the prevalence of head lice — that threw Pollack center stage. Schools called him up for advice. Parents phoned him. He put together a website, but that just attracted more attention, which is how he's ended up with cabinets packed with papers and a computer stuffed with email from people he's never met. Pollack's inbox folder entitled "head lice" contains 8,233 messages alone. He reads one:
"I'm writing to you out of sheer desperation ... since I obviously have the type of lice that is resistant to everything! We have fought these 'vermin.' I've tried home remedies such as vinegar, Lindane shampoo, olive oil, Rid furniture spray, ParaSpray — a French treatment for lice. I seriously contemplate shaving my head. Thank you. Signed, Desperate."
Some of these individuals suffer from a kind of psychosis called delusional parasitosis. They believe they've become infested with parasites. It can lead to social paralysis and spending vast sums on chemicals aimed at eradicating pests that don't exist.
Rebecca Weigel of Brockton, Mass., worried nonstop about lice for more than a year.
"I thought I had lice and just couldn't get rid of them for a long time. Cause I would feel them, I'd feel them crawling all around my hair. I'd feel them on me," she says.
Sending Pollack samples became something of an addiction for her.
"As time went on," Weigel says, "he would be like, 'Go relax with your kids, go have fun.' He was always very, like, reassuring."
Weigel says his replies were surprising.
"I was surprised," she says. "You know, one time I read it and it was so thoughtful. And, you know, I was just crying at the end because he sees how much it's, like, destroying my life. It's nice to know somebody's rooting you on."
Pollack says he's "probably 5 percent entomologist, and 95 percent therapist."
"From a public health perspective, if I can prevent somebody from doing something terribly unwise, I will," he says.
Pollack recently left his position at Harvard to open his own business. He consults with companies about suspected infestations. And, of course, he continues to identify the countless insects — both real and imagined — that people send him. Pollack still prefers the real ones. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.