Washington Post prints correction thanks to bed bug activists

by nobugsonme on April 7, 2008 · 3 comments

in bed bugs, new york, new york city, new york vs. bed bugs

David Segal’s article in the Washington Post was frustrating on many levels, but most of all because the actual data presented was erroneous and misleading, as I argued in my response to it.

Kudos are now due to Renee of NewYorkvsBedbugs.org, who was surely the party responsible for convincing the Washington Post via this campaign to correct the erroneous information used by David Segal to dismiss the size of New York’s bed bug problem.

If you recall, Segal argued that the media was overstating the size of the bed bug problem in the US. To support this, Segal claimed that,

. . . there are so many bedbug false alarms that there’s reason to assume many perfectly sane people are ringing them. In New York, the city housing authority has fielded and checked out more than 2,500 bedbug complaints in the past three years; fewer than 500 turned out to be actual infestations.

That information was, of course, entirely incorrect, as well as misleading.

The correction now preceding the article on the Washington Post’s site reads,

Correction to This Article
The article about bedbugs said that 500 of the 2,500 bedbug complaints lodged with the New York City Housing Authority between 2005 and 2007 turned out to be actual infestations. After taking a closer look at its records, the authority now says it did not keep detailed reports on bedbugs until last year. Of the 1,720 bedbug complaints received in 2007, a spokesman says, 70 percent resulted in treatment by an exterminator.

Nevertheless, my main complaint about the article still holds: the information cited in the correction is still misleading.

Segal only chose to cite NYCHA data in his article. The NYCHA only deals with infestations in public housing. As this NYCHA website reminds us, only 5.1% of the NYC population lives in NYCHA housing. Most tenants renting NYC apartments would not be eligible to call NYCHA to report a housing problem.

The vast majority of tenants in NYC would call the Housing and Preservation Department (HPD) via the city’s 311 hotline, to report that a landlord was not dealing with a bed bug complaint. I stress that they would only call 311 if (a) they lived in housing for which the landlord is reponsible for eliminating bed bugs (buildings of less than 3 units are one example of those which are apparently exempt), (b) they had tried to get the landlord to remedy the bed bug problem and it had not been dealt with, and (c) they were not afraid of any repercussions for reporting the landlord in this way. (In fact, my anecdotal information suggests that most tenants with bed bugs in NYC don’t call 311; it’s also a given that zero homeowners would be included in this data, since HPD would not help them; so the HPD data is a very low estimate of how many tenants in NYC have bed bugs in a given year.)

Still, as the Daily News correctly reported last year, in the fiscal year ending June 2007, there were 6889 complaints of bed bugs reported to HPD and 2008 summonses handed out to landlords as a result. Including this statistic along with the NYCHA data would lead to a fuller estimate of how many rental tenants had bed bugs in FY 2006-2007. It would be woefully understated, but not as much as the data the Washington Post provides.

The Washington Post was right to correct the inaccuracy of the NYCHA data Segal offered up, but this correction does not fully correct the inaccuracy of the facts presented in support of Segal’s argument.

New Yorkers should visit NewYorkvsBedBugs.org and write a letter to their city councilpersons.
Do it, and things might get better.

1 James Buggles April 7, 2008 at 9:28 pm

Another outstanding analysis. Journalists (I use that term loosely) like Segal have cherry picked facts that support their opinion for years, but now we have bloggers to expose them.

2 DougSummersMS April 8, 2008 at 7:50 am

We need accurate statistics to mobilize public awareness about bed bug infestations. The stats that are currently available are sparse and highly mis-leading about rates of infestation in New York.

Doesn’t NMPA conduct surveys of PMP’s in New York? I would think that the pest control industry would be the best source for hard data.

Perhaps we could ask a university based researcher to survey New York PMP’s to provide an accurate statistical picture of the rates of infestation throughout the region.

Lobbying for legislation to fund research efforts or identifying private sources of funding could help establish the true scope of the problem.

We need to work with the pest control industry to develop a universal reporting database that can accurately track the problem & collect information for research.

3 nobugsonme April 8, 2008 at 8:47 am

Thanks James and Doug.

Doug offers wonderful ideas. I agree about the importance to knowing the true scope of the problem. I believe if it were known, there would also be much more support from public officials and the public at large for taking measures to reduce the problem. As is, public officials can say “it’s not a common problem.” The question then is “how common do we want it to get?”

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