letter from Bedbugger reader Adam Voiland

by nobugsonme on March 19, 2008 · 17 comments

in Adam Voiland, bed bugs, bedbugs, journalists, letter to the editor, U. S. News

Note to readers: a letter to the editor from journalist Adam Voiland, a staff Science and Medicine reporter at U.S. News and World Report, who did a major story for that magazine on bed bugs last year, is posted in its entirety below.

Full disclosure: I ask Adam’s indulgence as I made a few very minor alterations. I added hotlinks to our coverage of the Fox News story that Adam referenced, and to my post which responded to Adam’s article. I added paragraph breaks to facilitate ease-of-reading (sorry, Adam, to make you contend with editors even in your off-time!) I also changed one word: reference to LtDan’s “posts” in the third paragraph, second sentence, was changed to “comments,” for greater clarity, since Dan’s status here on the Bedbugger blog is as a commenter. It’s a blog thing: blog authors are said to write “posts,” whereas everyone else leaves “comments.” And I hope you all will: comment, I mean.

Thanks for your letter, Adam!

– nobugs

———————————————————————————————————————-

Nobugs,

I checked Bedbugger.com tonight to see if you had picked up the story about Fox News and bedbugs. In doing that I happened to run across your post titled “Bed bugs in almost all 58 states” that was published on June 4, 2007. It’s an interesting post, and I found the stream of comments from Lt. Dan in response particularly fascinating to read. The discussion about immigrants and bedbugs cuts to the heart of one of the dilemmas I faced in covering the bedbug story–which has received a fair amount of criticism on this blog from some of its readers–for U.S. News & World Report. [Editor's note: Adam's original U.S. News and World Report story on bed bugs is here, and our commentary on it is here.]

One of the undercurrents that came up numerous times in the various interviews I conducted for the bedbug story was this issue of immigration. Under their breath or off the record a number of PCOs and scientists mentioned to me that bedbug infestations tended to predominate in areas with high numbers of immigrants. I was told by some PCOs, for example, that different cultural groups had different reactions to bedbugs, different levels of experience with them, and, ultimately, different levels of concern about them. Although most of the comments were not overtly racist, they were the sort that might easily by construed to be had I put them in the public sphere. I chose not to include those quotes. And I chose not to address the immigration issue in my story. I knew that doing so would simply insert a level viscousness into the discourse that was neither warranted nor helpful. That may or may not have been a wise journalistic decision, but it is certainly the sort of choice that journalists make all the time in crafting their stories.

Meanwhile, Lt. Dan had called me numerous times full of theories on all things bedbugs related that seemed out of touch with reality at best and hysterical at worst. Some of his rhetoric then–same as you see in his comments on this blog–suggested he was prepared to start scapegoating and isolating any perceived source of bedbug contamination, be they immigrants or residents of New York City, in his personal war against bedbugs. I found this unsettling as history is full of examples for which having a particular disease or carrying a particular pest has been used as justification for demonizing social groups that, for one reason or another, were undesirable to society at large. This concerned me as my other reporting suggested he may not be the only one drawing this short-sighted conclusion. That concern about scapegoating perceived carriers of bedbugs is part of the reason that I assumed the tone that I did. Remember, that bedbugs do not kill or even seriously injure people physically.

Yes, (as I said before in my article and say again now) bedbugs are a problem. Yes, we ought to make a concerted effort as both individuals and as a society to control the spread of such a pest. And, yes, we should take seriously the stress and mental health problems they can spark for people who get them. However, we must also be wise in the tone and tenor of our response to these bugs. Getting hysterical or hyping this issue in ways that are not thoughtful or constructive has real consequences. I don’t believe that we should tolerate bigotry or irrational scapegoating in this country for any reason–including bedbugs. Was that part of my calculus in the tone I chose for my bedbug story? Definitely. Will taking a measured and thoughtful tone–as I would generally commend the author of this blog for doing–in our response hamper our country’s ability to stop the spread of bedbugs? Perhaps. That, however, is a risk I’m personally willing to take. And I can guarantee you if (or perhaps when?) I get bedbugs myself that’s one opinion of mine that’s not going to change.

Take Care,
Adam

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1 IveBeenBugged March 19, 2008 at 7:20 am

Wow and here I was going to take a break from posting for a few days.

I read both the article and all the posts from June 4 2007. This was 6 months before I found myself with my own problem and found this site.

I’m kind of surprised by the tone of it.

No matter how you look at it bed bugs were here long before even the first world war (in America and the rest of the world). I would think even the Indians most likely had problems with this bug.

If they suddenly had an outbreak of bed bugs I wonder if they thought they should check the Europeans and all their things for signs of bedbugs when the Europeans or perhaps the Norse 500 years before showed up on this continent.

Most likely not as they were already aware of the bed bugs for many generations themselves

I lived in a large city (Chicago) for many years in buildings that had muilti cultural tenants but I had to move to Florida into a white middle class neighborhood before I ended up with bed bugs.

Go figure.

2 Bugologist March 19, 2008 at 8:30 am

I didn’t catch the first go-around with this topic so my post may revisit some previously discussed information but I couldn’t resist.

What an amazingly interesting topic. It’s a topic that many PCO’s dealing with bed bugs probably want to discuss but shy away from because of how people view pigeon holeing certain ethnicities or socio-economic classes and the ramifications of such claims. Unfortunately, today’s society cripples many of us in discussing such topics and many of us fear stating observations because of racist/hateful undertones. In no way am I promoting racism or hate towards anyone because of where they came from or what they believe. If any of you knew me personally you would know I’d be the first one on the frontline to fight inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, etc…

I hear my parents voices at the dinner table in my head. “Look at the jails, most of the people in jails are black”. You can figure out where they were going with that argument. I always hated it and figured there had to be more to it but wasn’t prepared to argue back at a young age. I didn’t have my defense prepared nor could figure out why it was. But there is more to it. Whether you want to look deeper or not.

Now the same observation that my parents once made about jails being filled with other races can be made in regards to bed bugs. Whether anyone wants to say it or not, there is a much higher incidence of certain ethnicities being associated with bed bugs. I can guarantee that other than David Cain and I, there isn’t anybody on here that’s seen as many jobs as we have. 100′s, maybe 1000′s. I don’t know. I don’t count. Bottom line is that the same surface observation can be made, but as I thought when I was young, there has to be more to it.

It has to do with pest control practices and tolerances. Where many people come from they don’t have the approach to pest control that we do here. If any of you have lived in Florida, you know that down there you have to have a higher tolerance for bugs. They are everywhere and in some instances, nothing you can do about it. Now add Florida’s environmental conditions with the financial crippling atmosphere in 3rd world countries (where most of our immigrants are coming from, that’s why they come here, to escape the discomfort of their home country). You have to have a higher tolerance for insect presence. You don’t have the money to fix it and you have an insect reproduction heaven from an environmental standpoint. They don’t have air conditioners to keep interior temperatures down. So now imagine it being 85 degrees and humid indoors 9 months a year and what that does to the reproductive capacity of bed bugs. You could put anybody from any race or ethnicity in that situation and you might have bed bugs too and learn to live with a certain amount as well. You unfortunately may not have a choice.

It has nothing to do with ethnicity, race, or any other class. It has to do with the bug. You could put anyone in the conditions that some of these immigrants come from and you would have the same problems.

Imagine where you live, it being hotter and more humid than you can imagine, no relief and 50 dollars to your name to feed you and your family. Now what do you do? Well food is more important that killing some bugs. Throw your beds out in the sun for a while, keep the problem maintained, and tolerate what you can. This bug just sucks. No way around it.

(You have no idea how long I stewed over posting this because I wasn’t sure how people would accept it. Oh well, we don’t live in the U.S. if you can’t say what you believe without being a jerk about it so here goes nothing.)

3 hopelessnomo March 19, 2008 at 10:51 am

Nobugs advised me via email to keep my cool and I hate that I will disappoint her but I have to object to this rationale.

Without actual research, you really have to be careful about non causa pro causa fallacies. If 20 hypothetical immigrants in a community all have bedbugs, did they bring them from a “hot,” “humid” country where they “tolerate” them (never mind the sorry state of discourse that such terms demonstrate) or did something more prosaic happen, such as they all shopped at the same used mattress store? Or did some of them move to a building that was (already) thoroughly infested and spread their infestations to others in their social network?

As for Mr. Voiland, I welcome this evidence of a thought process we did not appreciate earlier, but the fact remains that his piece was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the bedbug story and I am sorry that he was not able to get past the assorted biases of his sources to attain a fuller conception of the issues.

And I would add that the choice should not be between hysteria and skepticism; the choice should always be reason.

4 Doug Summers MS March 19, 2008 at 11:55 am

Where did the bed bugs come from after a fifty year hiatus in the United States is one of the more interesting scientific questions that has been raised in the discussion about bed bugs.

I believe that DNA research such as the studies that are underway at Texas A & M University may eventually give us a science based answer.

Here is a link to an article about the use of DNA analysis to track the migration patterns of bed bugs. Articles about this research have been posted by NoBugs on the blog.

http://urbanentomology.tamu.edu/bedbugs/bedbugs.cfm

The researchers suggest that the domestic bed bugs may have shifted hosts and continued to survive on chicken farms. Personally, I am skeptical about the chicken farm theory, but I am excited that the research data leads to a hypothesis that can be empirically tested in the real world.

DNA research will ultimately answer the scientific questions about the migration history of bed bugs.

As much as I would love to sell hundreds of BedBugDogs to the US Customs Service, I seriously doubt that stopping infested travelers at the border would have a major effect on the spread of bed bugs in the US at this point. We have large domestic populations of bed bugs that are sufficient keep the pandemic spiraling out of control for the foreseeable future.

Doug

5 paulaw0919 March 19, 2008 at 12:22 pm

Yes, the choice should always be reason. Personally I could give a crap on where they came from at this point. Doug is absolutely correct in that domestic populations are spiraling out of control. I used to have a very nice lifestyle, enjoying raising my children. Now after fighting this beast of a bug in our home for 6months, a vikane treatment, losses….$37k…we can barely make ends meet and I have a constant worry and fear of bringing them back into the home when we go out. I was not one that purchased 2nd hand furniture and have not traveled in over 5 yrs. We live over 1.5 hrs from NYC. This was brought into our clean home somehow without any warning. Instead of spending wasteful dollars on “where they came from” The needs to have something that kills these things and rids them much much easier. The length of time to rid them, the never knowing if they’re gone, the constant reinfestation due to unpacking a belonging….The tons of chemicals sprayed over and over for months in ones home cannot be good on a health issue. Tons of items tossed away and millions spent on plastic bags for months just to rid this bug. It would be soo much better at all stand points if they could get put something on the market that works! Use it once, maybe twice at most and be done with it!

6 Bugologist March 19, 2008 at 3:12 pm

hopeless, I hear what you’re saying, but every immigrant population shops at the same used mattress store? Because every apartment complex I’ve treated that has large immigrant populations has large bed bug problems (and that’s not a subsample of 3, more like 10-15 complexes). Not to say a more upscale complex doesn’t have problems but it usually goes something like 10-15 infested units in the first example and 1 or 2 in the second.

To be honest, you proved my point. It’s not about ethnicity or race, it’s about behaviors and money. Who typically buys used mattresses from shady mattress distributors? Who tolerates bugs because they can’t afford to fix the problem?

7 lieutenantdan March 19, 2008 at 3:39 pm

It appears that bed bugs had been eradicated from the US for many a year, some say it was the fact that the use DDT was the primary force in the bed bug eradication. It appears to me that the United States used DDT because of DDTs ability to kill certain insects that can damaged crops and had the ability to spread disease. I think that I may be somewhat correct in saying that settlers such as the Europeans for example brought disease with them to places like North America that spread to the native poplulation killing many natives in the process. When immigrants such as my grandparents came to America back in the early 1900′s they had to be reviewed for disease and vaccinated. Today, in other parts of the world exists disease that we do not have as epidemics in this country right now, just check cdc website and you will see the information, in order for disease to spread, disease may be carried by people, animals or insects. Other countries do not have the control over disease and poverty and insects as we do in the U.S. For many years teams of professional people have worked towards control of disease in this country probably more so than any other country on this planet. The U.S. has spent taxpayer money, our money to help protect us from deadly disease. The fact that some other countries especially countries that are less privledged than ours do not have those means and do not take the precautions that we do. People who travel to and from a less fortunate country have to take precautions such as vaccinations. Driving from Nevada to California I went through a state border check, they checked not for drugs the concern was plants, California did not want plants from Nevada to enter California. All this said I believe that bed bugs had appeared to had been eradicated in the U.S. have not been eradicated in other countries so if a settler comes to the U.S. I believe that yes they could have brought bed bugs back into the U.S.
Now I know that people may twist this and say that it is showing prejudice but I have learned that you can please some of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time so I know that some will take offense. Let me just say please remember that I am like most of the people of the U.S. which are of immigrant families.

Also I like to address the reporters comments. I find it hard to swallow a thing this person has to say after that initial article that was written about bed bugs that had greatly upset many of this sites members. It appears as if time is starting to prove how insensitive this reporting was and how little energy was put into the story and it appears that this person is now grabbing at straws.

8 nobugsonme March 19, 2008 at 4:36 pm

LtDan,
When I first started reading about bed bugs, I heard that they had been eradicated once DDT was introduced. Indeed, many of my earlier articles reference this claim which is commonly made by experts on bed bugs. (This is a blog, and though I try to correct “errors” or other comments I’ve made which later do not appear to be correct, it is not possible to re-check everything regularly.)

However, there is evidence that while bed bugs were not common during the period of the 1950s to the late 1990s, in North America (and indeed, it appears, Western Europe and Australia and other places), they nevertheless were never entirely eradicated here.

Hopelessnomo did an excellent post
rounding up sources stating that bed bugs existed in the UK throughout the 1970s and 1980s (and while infestations were not as prevalent as today, by far, they did occur regularly). In one of the comments on that post, she points us to multiple sources stating they were also found in the US during the 1980s and 1990s at least.

For example, here’s the NYTimes talking about bed bugs in 1986, the Alabama Cooperative Extension on how people probably suffered bed bug bites in the US for decades before the media started talking about them, the NYTimes again on bed bugs in a Chinatown flophouse in 1989, this NYTimes article mentioning bed bugs as possibility in co-op storage units in NYC in 1989, this one from the Chicago Sun-Times on bed bugs in a Chicago retirement hotel in 1990, and this article about a woman suing an Annapolis hotel for bed bugs in 1989! (I found all those sources via Hopelessnomo’s helpful comment cited above.)
Lou Sorkin has also mentioned being shown bed bug samples for identification during those decades.

Many have the idea that bed bugs “came back” to the States approx. 1999, but it appears to be a resurgence of an already existing pest, rather than a sudden return of a pest that had been eradicated.

I can’t cite sources to cover the 1950s-1970s (which is harder to find, in part because items from the period aren’t as googleable), so it would be interesting to see if similar evidence is out there.

9 James Buggles March 19, 2008 at 7:43 pm

Let me translate Adam Voiland’s essay for you:

“I don’t trust my readers so I withhold information from them because in the words of that great character played by Jack Nicholson, they can’t handle the truth.”

So typical of the elite media in their ivory tower. I’ve got news for Mr. Voiland. Most of the best reporters in the world don’t go into journalism because the pay sucks. That’s how we end up with people like Mr. Voiland reporting news.

A good reporter would have put the PCO comments about immigrants in the article and let the readers decide for themselves what, if anything, it means.

Now, if Mr. Voiland was writing a column, that would be a different story. But he wasn’t. He was supposedly reporting news. That said, you have to give him credit for coming clean here.

10 bugbasher March 20, 2008 at 7:24 am

I’m in agreement that the bb problem has NOTHING to to with race AND everything to do with money.Who’s the poorest in the country? People who come from more disadvantaged countries,looking for a better life.We need to reach out in the disadvantaged communities,not ostricize them.I don’t think immigrants caused this epidemic,that’s just silly.The problem is their here and everywhere else ,too.Can we get past the “where they came from” and start to focus on eradication?Something,some unknown factor ,has caused them to spiral out of control everywhere.I personally,would love to know what that unknown is,fact is we may not know for a lomg time.Global warming? Pollution? Every time a certain species starts to die or proliferate it’s saying something about the state of the ecosystem on this planet and we REALLY need to know what this means to have any chance to correct it.When frogs or any other wildlife starts to die or proliferate,scientist start looking for reasons as we are dependant on the other life on the planet.People like to think that they are masters of the universe,but we are merely a part of it.I hope scientists are looking for answers,not only to curb the epidemic but also to find out what’s gone wrong in the ecosystem.

11 lieutenantdan March 20, 2008 at 9:49 am

Yes, I am sorry that I used the word erradicated because it is so definite.
The word immigrant provokes fear in some and compassion in others and illegal immigrant is a whole nother ball game. I like the word settler for immigrant.
Although some information suggests that bed bugs were never erradicated in North America it seems to me that there were not many around. I have lived my entire life in New York City which because of population size and congestion always experiences much of what the world can dish out. I have traveled North American extensively and in all my years I have not heard any reference to bed bugs until the last ten years. I do believe that people can bring them with them in travels from less fortunate places on this planet so if a person decides to settle to North America from a less fortunate place than I do believe that bed bugs can and will come with them. Some say the outbreak of West Nile was linked to travel. A mosquito in someones luggage or in packing or that hitched a ride on a plane or carried by a migrating bird that originated from a west nile troubled country may have started the whole thing. Who knows but it can make sense.
Just let me say that I do not have a thing against people who have a dream to settle in the U.S. and follow that dream.

12 Douglas Stern March 20, 2008 at 11:44 am

The Wall Street Journal just published information about bed bug treatments and the seriousness of the bed bug threat. Here is a link to the article online: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120596873874750153.html?mod=pj_main_hs_coll

The article mentions several new treatments being used by firms including ourselves. Clearly there is a huge rise in the incidence of bed bugs. At Stern Environmental Group, we are finding excellent success with a CO2 freezing spray. Not only is the kill rate excellent when properly applied, but there are no poisons used in sensitive sleeping areas.

13 Bugologist March 20, 2008 at 3:05 pm

I don’t think we can drop the “where did they come from discussion” because it’s an important aspect to consider. The way you solve problems is to get to the source of the problem. Putting out spot fires in peoples dwellings is all fine and dandy but they had to come from a source and trying to address the sources (because there are definitely sources that are more significant than others) is how you drastically improve the problem.

14 nobugsonme March 20, 2008 at 5:37 pm

Douglas,
Thanks for pointing out the article which will be discussed in another post. However, please keep the discussion on topic! As is, the remainder of your comment appears to be an advertisement for your methods, and as such is not really relevant here nor appropriate. You are welcome to contact me (nobugs at bedbugger.com) if you want to find out about advertising on the site.

15 hopelessnomo March 20, 2008 at 8:34 pm

Bugologist-

Where do they come from? I’ll tell you where I think they come from. And then I’ll leave because, as an immigrant, I can’t go where you want to take this. I reject, categorically, what you are attempting to do and will not be a part of it.

Ready?

Bedbugs come from primary infestations that are poorly controlled and allowed to grow and subsequently generate secondary infestations.

That’s it. That’s the problem. (And the solution, of course. Isn’t that nifty?)

Immigrants and poverty and poor housing conditions and, worst of all, individual or cultural “tolerance” for bugs are dead-ends. Of course, they are not political dead-ends. But you know that already.

16 IveBeenBugged March 24, 2008 at 8:38 pm

Interesting replys and logical responses on both sides but I am still of the belief that the return of the bed bug has little to do with immigrants bringing them from elsewhere in the world.

One of the reasons why an immingrant apartment building may have more infestations may be something as simple as the fact that they are more likely to be sociable with each other (thus allowing the bug to more easliy hitchhike to other units) while the middle and upper class people tend to stick to themselves. Many of us rarely even know the neighbors much less invite them over or visit them.

We here in the U.S. have supposedly eradicated or controlled not only pests but certain non native plants animals (both are a big problem in florida) and diseases only to have them return but now much more resistant to previous treatments.

Is it so hard to imagine a bug doing the same thing?

17 bedbugfinder May 4, 2008 at 9:36 pm

As a Second Generation Pest Control Professional in Florida for 19 years, I have seen the Bed Bug problems become more and more prevalent. We see many cases from all backgrounds. We have had cases where a relative came to visit from a less developed country than ours. We have had cases where there is no logical reason for them to be there. We have had cases where it is an up scaled Apartment, not so up scaled, and right down to the economically challenged. But my first ever case was in a very expensive house. White carpets and gold fixtures and quite well to do. In my opinion we need to work on our domestic problem, “Our Problem”. The Bed Bug problem belongs to all of us. We are now more than ever a community of the World. Many of the World’s problems become our problems regardless of who is to blame. I have spent many years researching and watching these creatures as well as feeding them myself to keep them alive as to further my research. I realized early on that these Bugs were a force to be reckoned with. My wife and children are very understanding of my profession and having live Bed Bugs in our home on purpose seems crazy to many people. But without those of us who are willing to do the research we would learn at a much slower pace. I take so much time with customers who have these insects, because it is a traumatic ordeal. We use a K-9 for detection and have used most of the treatment methods available with success. Years of first hand treatment and research has helped me determine that It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, or what your financial position may be, we are all in this together. I have had customers who had a bad infestation, but could not pay for the treatment. The logical solution for me….Treat and don’t Charge. Why should they have to suffer? Some of our own Parents and Grandparents live in Apartments and are on fixed incomes, Should they be to blame for not calling a Pest Control Company knowing that they can’t afford it?… I treat many homes for Free. I don’t blame them because Social Security doesn’t pay them enough to Buy food and prescriptions and exist without bugs. Of course I have to make a judgment call, If they keep a clean clutter-free house and have done their part within reason to try to eliminate the problem on their own. Then I will take it from there. I find that pointing the finger doesn’t make me feel as good as having sympathy and giving some back to the community.
Both Theories on where they came from have some validity, but who gets the reward if either is proven? The reward will go to the person that finds a way to reduce the bed bug population to that of the 1950′s. If we put forth the effort to find the cure that we put forth to try to make our opinions right, we might just be on the correct path. Helping a fellow brother or his family is what we all should be about. Maybe I am one of the few who feel this way and am willing to back it up. I Find Bedbugs and treat for them even if some can’t pay. The blessings of these people do more for me than finding out what group is to blame. I also donate my K-9 detection Services to the Fire Houses in my area. With all of the Foreclosures and loss of employment in Florida, the Municipalities have little money in the budget for these type of services, So I donate them. Our Fire and Paramedics enter into every type of house when on a call, and there have been documented cases of fire houses being closed down due to bed bugs. Offering my services only seemed like the right thing to do. By the way, there are many ethnicities in our Fire Houses, I would be honored for any of these men or women to save my life no matter who they are or where they come from.

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