The most original bed bug story a journalist can tell is that bed bugs aren’t really an epidemic after all.
That was so in 2008, when Washington Post journalist David Segal wrote “Hmm. Tiny, Evil– and Everywhere?”
Still, it’s two years later and we’re ripe for a new attempted debunking of the “bed bug epidemic”; enter a new story by Matt Smith in SF Weekly claiming the bed bug scare is “bogus.”
It is true that a lot of the media’s bed bug hype is based on subjective data. I don’t put much stock in “top ten” and “top fifteen” infested city lists, because they’re based on how many cases Orkin and Terminex treated in the various cities.
Smith argues in SF Weekly that we’re getting news of the increase of bed bugs from pest control firms set to benefit from the hype, and sources like the Bed Bug Registry, which aren’t verified. That’s true to a point, but the lack of good, objective data on the incidence of bed bugs does not mean there is not a serious and increasing problem. And there is evidence that bed bugs really are spreading, and increasing in number, and really do need to be taken seriously.
While I am first to admit that media coverage does not correspond to the degree to which bed bugs are a problem in any given time and place, I did not think much of Segal’s argument or his data in the Post back in February, 2008, or in an interview he did with WNYC a few weeks later.
Unfortunately, Smith relies on Segal’s incorrect data. Smith writes of the 2008 story,
In his Post story, Segal noted that unverified bedbug reports, even sincere ones, can be unreliable; only one out of every five bedbug complaints to the New York Housing Authority actually turned up a real infestation.
This was apparently based on Segal’s claim that
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.
However, a “Correction to This Article” clearly posted above Segal’s story notes that
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.
In other words, Smith relies in his current story on a statistic that the Washington Post has already admitted was not correct.
Unfortunately, NBC San Francisco blogger Matt Baume apparently picks up on Smith’s story, with the incorrect numbers, and runs with it.
In New York, around 80% of bedbug reports fail to turn up any of the bugs.
Smith and Baume need to look into their sources more carefully. According to the Post’s correction, only 30% of the NYCHA bed bug complaints in 2007 did not require bed bug treatment.
Not only is this NYCHA statistic originally given by Segal and picked up by Smith and Baume incorrect, but the NYCHA statistics are also misleading as they apply only to the city’s public housing units, and not to reports from tenants in privately-owned housing, which are handled by the NYC Housing and Preservation Department. And NYCHPD numbers of bed bug reports are much higher (HPD reports there were 6889 complaints and 2008 violations –in other words, complaints verified as bed bug cases by city inspectors — in fiscal year 2007; see Bed Bug Advisory Board Report (via Scribd), Appendix A, page 24).
While Smith notes the San Francisco Health Department’s bed bug reports (which went from 380 in 2008 to 532 in 2009) can be attributed to heightened awareness, he also admits that those numbers don’t represent all of the actual incidences of bed bugs, since “sufferers are as apt to plague a hardware store’s pesticide aisle as to report bugs to the government.”
In other words, Smith admits the official numbers in San Francisco are much underreported. That’s obviously the case here in NYC also. While the official reports recorded by NYC’s Housing and Preservation Department are consistently increasing at an alarming rate, they’re still quite low, because most people call their landlords for treatment or try to deal with the problem themselves, rather than filing a housing complaint.
The statistics we have in New York City, however, show that not only are more people filing bed bug complaints with the city than in the past, but a higher percentage of those complaints in recent years is resulting in violations (complaints confirmed by the inspectors).
The NYC Housing and Preservation Department reported that bed bug complaints went up 19.2% from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2009 (from 9213 to 10,985), whereas bed bug violations went up 42.3% (from 2871 to 4084). In New York City, heightened awareness may have led to more complaints, but a much higher percentage of those complaints were actual bed bug cases in 2009 than 2008. (See NYC’s Bed Bug Advisory Board Report (via Scribd), Appendix A, page 24).
These numbers suggest heightened awareness may be contributing to more accurate bed bug complaints, at least in NYC.
I was also perplexed by the SF Weekly article’s implication that bed bugs are an occasional occurrence in the Tenderloin:
“Going back more than eight years, you didn’t hear much about bedbug infestations,” said Antoinetta Stadlman, who lives in the Baldwin House Hotel on Sixth Street, where she says she’s the building representative for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which monitors the quality of life in SROs. “Nowadays you do hear about an infestation once in a while.”
People in the Tenderloin may only talk about bed bugs “once in a while,” but we understand that although bed bugs are a problem all over San Francisco, the Tenderloin has long been notorious for its bed bug problems (here are some examples from 2005, 2006, 2009).
The Tenderloin Housing Clinic and Central City SRO Collaborative have been supporting local residents with bed bugs during that entire time with housing clinics, fact sheets (such as the THC Tenant Information Sheet included in this PDF), and by working with local officials like City Supervisor Chris Daly to improve the situation for SRO residents (as in the second CCSRO report here).
It hardly sounds like a “once in a while” problem for Tenderloin SRO residents.
Smith is correct that The Bed Bug Registry isn’t vetted, and can’t be relied on to document the exact location and number of bed bug cases. However, even if there are many bogus reports, it is equally true that many (and I would guess many, many more) people don’t report their bed bug infestations to the Bed Bug Registry.
Just ask people you know who have bed bugs whether they’ve reported them to the Bed Bug Registry. I know of a number of recent cases among my friends and neighbors, none of which are listed. (You might ask why I don’t report them myself, but I think this is something the individual must choose to do themselves, for a number of reasons.)
The truth is, we don’t have good statistics on exactly how many cases of bed bugs exist or where they’re located. We’re still waiting for more cities to enact a study like Stephen W. Hwang et. al. conducted in Toronto in 2003 (which, I note, made wonderful use of pest control firms’ data on bed bug cases treated).
In NYC, data collection and tracking of infestations was among the recommendations of the city’s Bed Bug Advisory Board Report (via Scribd), released last spring (see pages 14-15).
Yes, many people do think they have bed bugs when they don’t. This is something we regularly warn people about on our forums, since it’s important not to launch into bed bug treatment without definitive evidence.
And yes, clearly there’s a media frenzy about bed bugs. Obviously, the incidence of bed bug stories in the news does not correspond directly to the level of bed bug presence in those cities. In some cases, they may be overreported, while in others, they are surely being underreported.