Daily News-Marist poll shows 1 in 10 New Yorkers has had bed bugs

by nobugsonme on August 17, 2010

in bed bug epidemic, bed bugs, new york city, spread of bed bugs

The Daily News reported Monday that a Daily News-Marist poll found that one in ten New York City residents has had bed bugs.

(A recent NYC Community Health Survey found that one in fifteen New Yorkers, or 6%, had bed bugs last year.)

The Daily News-Marist poll results were as follows:

Bedbugs By The Numbers

New Yorkers who’ve had an infestation in their home: 11%
New Yorkers with a close friend or relative who had bedbugs: 28%
New Yorkers who’ve had an infestation at work: 9%
New Yorkers who’ve seen bedbugs at a store: 9%
Average home cleanup cost: $1,310
New Yorkers who think the city is doing too little to deal with bedbugs: 46%

Additional data broke down the demographics of New York bed bug sufferers:

Bedbug problems by age:

Under 45: 15%
45 or older: 8%

Note: recent research on bed bug bite reactions by Dr. Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky has found that people over 65 are less likely to react to bed bug bites than younger people; therefore they may be less likely to report having had them, a factor which should taken into account.

Bedbug problems by race:

White: 6%
African-American: 12%
Latino: 10%

Results from a Daily News-Marist poll of 809 adults. Margin of error plus or minus 3.5%.

I am skeptical about how much we can learn from this poll. First of all, we know that many people do not know much about bedbugs.

If you read the comments on blogs and news articles about bed bugs, you find that many people still think that bed bugs are the same as dust mites. And everyone has dust mites, so if you are someone who thinks bed bugs are dust mites, you’re going to say, “yes, I have had them.”

At the other end of the spectrum are people who do have bed bugs and have no idea they have them. The Daily News suggests 50% of people are “allergic to bed bug secretions”, but Dr. Potter’s recent research on bed bug bites suggests the number of people who do not react allergically to bed bug bites is 30%. In any case, respondents may not yet be aware they have a bed bug problem, even one which may have been going on for some time.

I think that surveys trying to determine whether people have had bedbugs should provide a lot more information (and images) for respondents to consult, and that they should ask respondents for more information about what they experienced, for example querying respondents as to how they knew they had bed bugs, and who confirmed the identification (if anyone did).

So, on the one hand, there are people who think they have had bed bugs, but haven’t, and on the other hand, the problem of people who have had them, but think they haven’t. Perhaps these two groups cancel each other out?

Since the NYC Community Health Survey data showed 6% of New Yorkers had bed bugs last year, it is plausible that 11% of New Yorkers could have had them at any time in the past. Of course, we can’t really compare the two sets of data — apples and oranges and all that — but if they were taken together, they would suggest a rapid rise in infestations.

I am not skeptical about the 11% who claim to have had bed bugs at home and the 28% who have had friends or relatives with bed bugs (both seem very plausible to me).

But the data that 9% have had bed bugs at work, and 9% have seen them in a store seem high to me. I have known one person who saw a bed bug in a store, but this is not something that many people have reported.

We also know that people often think they are seeing bed bugs when they find spider beetles, spiders, carpet beetles, and so on, either in their homes or outside them. So the respondents who do not have extensive experience may be overreporting bed bug sightings in stores and in the workplace.

At least I hope they are.

I also find the data about income, race, political party, and location here perplexing — especially the results showing that only 3% of Manhattanites (vs. 8-10% of residents in every other NYC borough), 2% of Republicans (compared with 12% of Democrats), and 6% of whites (compared with 10% of Latinos and 12% of African Americans) have had bed bugs.

The poll also found that

Twice as many people who made less than $50,000 a year had bedbugs, compared with those with higher incomes.

This is purely speculative on my part, but people on lower incomes may be more likely to suffer because their landlords may be less responsive — leading to problems spreading within buildings and neighborhoods. On the other hand, the more well-off folks may also be less likely to tell pollsters about their parasites.

I was amused by some of the speculation on NYMag’s Intel blog about the Republican-Democrat bed bug split. (Be sure and read the second page too!.)

Overall, the numbers may be skewed, but this we do know: the city’s official numbers for bed bug complaints are, and always have been, way off. We know this because we know most people don’t call 311 to file a complaint when their home has bed bugs. Tenants usually contact landlords first, and homeowners (and many tenants) will simply call a pest control firm.

Polls are what they are. Whether the Daily News-Marist poll is fairly accurate, or whether more or fewer than 10% of New Yorkers have already had bed bugs, no one can say for sure.

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