Nova Scotia is fighting bed bugs.
The Daily News of Halifax, NS reports on the bed bug epidemic there. This is a fairly informative, if brief, article. A few things are of interest.
First, the reporter says that
Pest control sevices provide efficient ways to deal with bedbugs. They dust and spray for bedbugs, and inspect residences for sign of the bugs.
But if all PCOs provide such efficient control, why do most people need more three or more treatments (as reported widely elsewhere)?
And if they’re treated so easily, why are they spreading so easily? If controlled easily and quickly, we could wipe them out. In fact, they’re quite difficult to treat (and this is because of the limited efficacy of the pesticides legal for treatment), and are spreading rapidly:
In the past two years, there has been a “significant” bedbug increase, says John Zinck, the district manager of Orkin Pest Control.
“Currently, we’re doing about 20 calls a week on average. We’ve done at least 1,000 to 1,500 residential units this year in Halifax,” he says.
Let me highlight that statement, Orkin alone have treated at least 1000 to 1500 residences for bed bugs in Halifax this year.
Halifax has a population of 380,000. Let’s say they live in homes of approximately 3.5 people each. That’s 108,571 residential units. Let’s say Orkin has treated 1500 residences, and other pest control operators have treated the same number combined (a conservative estimate, if Halifax has as many PCOs as other towns, and at least one other major chain besides Orkin). That would be 3000 residences. If 3000 residences in Halifax had bed bugs this year, that’s 2.7% of the homes. Depending on the business other PCOs are getting in the area, of course, the numbers could be much higher.
Here’s another thing to consider: NYC, my town, has had 4500 reports to 311 of bed bugs in the last year. Those reports are to a telephone line, and bed bug complaints are made only by tenants and only to the Department of Housing and Preservation. I can’t emphasize this enough: most people in NYC don’t call 311 to report a pest problem. Homeowners never would. Tenants do only if they think their landlord isn’t dealing with or won’t deal with a problem without pressure from the city housing dept. Most tenants simply tell their landlords directly.
What I know for a fact is that there’s no way there are only 4500 people in NYC suffering from bed bugs this year. I would personally estimate that there could be as many as 20x this or more. I have now interacted with at least 40 New Yorkers with bed bugs (online); I think 2 tried to call the 311 # and one had their report taken (the other was apparently given the run-around by the receptionist, who’d never heard of bed bugs). These are people who searched the internet and found a Yahoo group on bed bugs; if any folks with bed bugs had the wherewithal to find and call the 311 number, it would be these people.
The population in New York City in 2000 was 8,000,000: more than 21 times the population of Halifax. Based on my estimates above, this would translate to 2,285,714 homes of 3.5 people each (a made up number of inhabitants per residence, but identical to the one I made up for Halifax). An infestation in NYC which is comparable to 3000 homes in Halifax, might equal 84,656 residential units (housing 296,296 people) treated in one year, almost 20x the reports to 311. It would absolutely not surprise me if the infestation in NYC were at this level or higher right now.
And remember, it’s growing exponentially, and spreading fast.
I realize all those numbers are estimates, and I am not trying to be alarmist, but we need to realize the magnitude of this. Exactly how many people have to go through this in order for the government to treat it as a problem, despite the fact that right now, no physical diseases are believed to be spread this way?
One PCO interviewed by the Daily News journalist in Halifax said:
Bedbugs are the worst thing people could have in their houses, says Don McArthur, the president of Braemar Pest Control.
“They cause more psychological damage to people than half of the diseases that might be transmitted by insects.”
This is coming from the man who hears about the psychological damage caused by bed bugs. He’s meeting people every day who are covered in itchy welts, exhausted from a loss of sleep and the trauma of possibly having thrown out many of their belongings (and done all the work that involves, on top of the loss itself).
Psychological trauma, financial trauma, and the physical problems that can result from a lack of sleep (which impedes all aspects of daily activity, and all areas of your health)–all of these are real and serious.
Not as serious as Hurricane Katrina or a major illness.
But absolutely as serious as a lot of mental, physical, and financial situations for which the government routinely offers aid to citizens. If people had their homes affected by tornados, there would be federal assistance to the disaster area. Bed bugs are an act of nature, and this is not an easily-managed pest, nor one people could have planned for.
Homeowners and renters might expect the occasional influx of roaches, ants, or even termites; we’re dealing here with a pest we have not seen in 30 years, and in epic proportions. and here’s the key: unlike termites, ants, and roaches, the bedbugs are spreading and infecting everyone in the vicinity. The government needs to take this on because eradicating this epidemic protects the rest of the population from its spread.
We need assistance for homeowners and renters in getting top-rate pest control. Landlords will increasingly be unable to provide good pest management, financially, since eradicating bed bugs requires treatment of entire buildings. As much as I sympathize with people who want to demonize landlords, they’re not all rich. If we want to get rid of this pest, doing so has to be a matter of public interest.
This should also not be a great opportunity for PCOs to get rich quick. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that PCOs inadvertently benefit from the current use of inadequate pesticides to treat bed bugs. If they had DDT, the bed bug boom would be a flash-in-the-pan. They’d be in and out, the problem gone.
Instead, they’re contracted to come in repeatedly (usually 3 or more times), and can count on repeat business as the bugs make their way around a building. Many of us would gladly pay the same price for the short sharp eradication of these pests, that’s for sure. But maybe we would not have to.
And some people can’t, or won’t pay for the current costs of fighting bed bugs, and cutting corners is leading to their spread.
I am not implying that the PCOs are colluding with the bed bugs, you understand. (No flames, please.) I know most PCOs are as worried as the rest of us and want to be rid of them. They have elderly parents, partners, children–and they’re as or more vulnerable to an infestation as anyone, working as they do in the field (albeit with more awareness).
I do think we need to deal with these bugs as swiftly as possible. Besides helping finance (and requiring) thorough exterminations for all (not just those who can afford the best, or those who show the most foresight and therefore the most diligence in their treatment), the government should help stop the bug spreading further.
We need public education campaigns teaching people not to take in any second hand furniture, period, until this is over. Couches, soft chairs, and mattresses are obvious sources of bed bugs, but wooden desks, tables, and even metal bed frames and other items can carry the bugs. Anything on the curb could have been tossed out by a person with an infestation.
I’d say we also need more effective pesticides. We might consider a careful, controlled reintroduction of DDT, just until this is abated. It took a long time for the WHO to re-introduce it for malaria, and now, finally, people in Africa are getting some relief from those mosquitos. If DDT is effective against the current bed bugs (and I realize that’s a big “if”), it could be used in small quantities, in targeted areas, indoors (away from wildlife). From what I understand, there’s no proof it killed any humans or caused any human diseases. And I, for one, don’t have any whopping cranes in my closet with the bed bugs. We once got rid of bed bugs in this country for 30 years. Why not get rid of them again, and then keep them away?
NY has periodically sprayed for mosquitos in NYC; it began in 1999 and sprayed malathion, permethrin and other pesticides from the air and ground. This was the state Dept. of Health’s response plan in 2000. West Nile Virus is a different problem, and caused some serious illnesses and fatalities. But my point is that mental health problems caused by bed bugs, not to mention physical health problems (and financial ones), are being suffered by a wide number of people; they’ll be suffered by almost everyone in time if something is not done. We can’t leave it to the individual. Let’s not discount the effects of this epidemic on the tourism industry, and therefore on local incomes and tax funds.
There’s the theory that DDT is no longer effective against bed bugs; if this is so, serious, well-funded, widespread research must be done into other ways of getting rid of bed bugs. Before everyone has them.
Update (11/2008): A search on “Halifax” just brought up this post. Although I usually don’t delete posts (or part of posts) because I no longer agree with them, my thinking on the DDT issue has changed a lot since I wrote this back in 11/2006 (two years ago). For this reason, I feel the need to update this post.
Since then, I’ve read a lot about DDT. I don’t think there’s any chance of reintroducing it, I’m not sure it’s a good idea, and there is evidence that it started being ineffective against bed bugs as early as the 1947 (see this post), so I do not doubt reports of bed bug resistance to DDT near the time it was phased out in the US in the early 1970s.
In short, I do think we need stronger pesticides. In many areas, certain products might be relabeled for bed bugs with good effect. But I definitely think the idea of bringing back DDT is a non-starter.
And about PCOs benefitting from the need to repeat treatments? Well, some in any industry are going to be happy to do a second-rate service and rake in the dough. When I wrote this, more PCOs had less bed bug experience. We heard a lot more reports back then about PCOs who did not understand how well bed bugs traveled, who did cursory 10 minute inspections and declared 2-bedroom homes bed bug-free, who thought everyone with bed bugs had visible welts, or who thought repeat treatments were almost never necessary or should come after 6 weeks.
I am glad to say that more PCOs seem to know bed bugs than they did before. (And it makes sense, since the problem is growing.) And there are plenty of PCOs who do quality work and take pride in it. They’re trying to use the latest technologies, some of which make quick work of eliminating bed bugs. They want your bed bugs gone right away, just as you do. I am glad they’re out there.