Welcome to readers of the Village Voice article by Mara Altman.
Before she wrote her article, for which I declined to be interviewed, Mara Altman emailed me to ask why it is so hard to get people to speak about their experiences with bed bugs, and she wonders in this article why people who do speak wish to remain anonymous. After her article, with its patronizing tone towards “neurotic” bed bug sufferers, it will no longer be such a wonder.
She did not mention that “Diane,” whose paranoia she mocks, has darned good reason to fear getting bed bugs again. Why? Well, I know for a fact that Diane got rid of nearly everything she owned and sealed the rest into storage. She knew how to prevent spreading bed bugs and took every precaution. And she nevertheless soon found the bugs in the very next place she took up residence. Under similar circumstances, what rational person would not start to be extremely cautious?
Altman describes Diane’s and “Paul’s” reactions as if they are gross overreactions: “neurotic,” “paranoid,” dare I say it, crazy. And yet later, she writes:
Bedbugs are so itty-bitty that hundreds of eggs can fit on the head of a screw, and they can hole up in the smallest spaces–the crease of a lampshade, the hinge of a cupboard. And what makes them even more terrible is that they are obscenely durable–an adult bedbug can live more than one year without a meal. The chemicals, such as DDT, that formerly worked are now off the market for the role they played in causing silent springs, so exterminators are still lacking an answer to the problem.The best they can do is integrate many techniques: eliminate clutter, vacuum everything, inspect, monitor, and douse the place with chemicals. Meanwhile, they happily accept their fees.
Altman made Diane sound crazy for storing her stuff for 18 months, but wow, they really can live for a year without a meal. They really can come back again and again. It really does cost $400 a room to treat them in NYC, and you really might have to throw away everything you own. In light of those facts, paranoid, neurotic, and overly-cautious sound like sane reactions.
I know personally of a journalist in Canada who wrote an article about the spread of bed bugs and discovered them several months later in the apartment s/he was living in. This person did not catch the bugs from interviewing people; all the major cities in Canada are experiencing huge infestations, and the journalist theorized that s/he just got them, from a neighbor or on public transport or whatever. Who knows? The point is, it’s not so amusing when it happens to you, and it can happen to anyone.
Altman knows that people aren’t choosing to speak with her anonymously because “the bedbugs are taking notes.” The truth isn’t so cute, most sufferers are not delusional. As I told her before she wrote the article, in an email, it’s because people with bed bugs find it difficult when their friends, teachers, prospective employers, bosses, and clients find out they have bed bugs. Most of those I know with bed bugs are disclosing on a need-to-know basis, and being responsible about it. We tell dry cleaners, people who must enter our homes, people whose homes we have to explain why we can’t visit right now.
But we don’t necessarily want everyone we know to know. Some people are threatened with lawsuits by others who think the person is responsible for spreading the bug to them. This is beyond ridiculous: it’s like suing someone who has the flu, because you also have the flu: you may think you know who gave it to you, but you can never, ever be certain. Like the flu, people spread bed bugs before they know they have them. Many people are bitten for 2-4 months before they itch or see anything. Some for much longer.
Most importantly, Altman should look again at her statistics. She cites the 15 out of 100 of people who go into Pest Away wrongly thinking they have bed bugs every day; what about the other 85 out of 100, who do have bed bugs? If Pest Away is open 5 days a week, that’s 22,100 a year going to one Pest Control Operator (PCO) in NYC with bed bugs. One PCO out of hundreds of PCOs in the 5 boroughs. Altman nevertheless uncritically cites the city’s estimates that 1195 cases existed in the city last year (out of 4600 reported to 311). Obviously, these numbers don’t match up.
According to yellowbook.com, there are are over 200 PCOs within 5 miles of my home. If each of them also got only 3 calls a day from people with actual infestations, five days a week, that would be an additional 156,000 cases per year. We can assume some PCOs have rates of bed bug customers approaching those of Pest Away; my estimates are conservative. And they add up to 178,100 cases of bed bugs either treated by Pest Away or by a PCO within 5 miles of my home, in one year. And that is only part of the 5-borough area. The city’s estimates of 1195 our of 4600 reported bed bug cases in NYC last year are obviously far from the actual number of bed bug infestations.
Early in the article, we’re told that:
The thought of them is making people itch–not the bedbugs themselves, whose numbers don’t even quite live up to the media hype.
Yet we’re also told that from 2002 to 2006:
That’s an increase [in bed bug infestations in NYC] of 231,800 percent (not to mention a 25,000 percent increase in bedbug articles in newspapers and magazines).
If the incidence has grown by nine times as much as the reportage has grown, as Altman states, that isn’t media hype. That’s under-reporting.
This article will unfortunately make people even less likely to talk about having bed bugs, because the author chooses to take the low road and mock sufferers. She omits facts that might make their behavior seem a bit more reasonable. And ultimately, she misses the chance to help people realize that they need to take action to stop the spread of bed bugs, because she underestimates the seriousness of the problem.
If 178,000 or more New York City residents may have suffered from bed bugs this past year, then 44 times that is 8 million, the number of New Yorkers in the last census. 44 times as many bed bugs does not seem like much, since the leap of confirmed cases reported to 311 from the period 2002-2006 was from 2 cases to 1195 cases: 597 times as many bed bugs in four years.
We’re worried because we realize how fast bed bugs are spreading, how easily they spread, how difficult and costly they are to eradicate (most infestations take not 1-2 pest control treatments as Altman states, but 2 or more), and how clearly the city’s statistics cover up the scope of the problem (which has now been reported in 24 of our city’s public schools), a fact the statistics from Pest Away’s Jeff Eisenberg demonstrate.