Bed Bugs on the Subway: should the MTA notify the public of sightings?

by nobugsonme on August 28, 2014 · 11 comments

in bed bug laws, bed bug legislation, bed bugs on public transportation, new york city

When bed bugs are found on Metropolitan Transportation Authority trains or buses, consumers should be notified, say New York City Councilman Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn) and State Assemblyman Bill Colton (D), according to the Daily News.

The Daily News notes that legislation Colton and Treyger are drafting will require consumers to be notified within 24 hours when bed bugs are found on buses and trains, and will also call for the MTA to let consumers know how the problem is being addressed in each instance.

A lot of people on the subway have been seeing something small and brown and saying something lately.

A brief recap: bed bugs were found on the N and 5 lines earlier in early August, and then later on the 4 by a consumer, with the ID confirmed by entomologist Gil Bloom in the Daily News (though the insect’s origins can’t be verified; see update below), and on the N, Q and the 6 this week.••  According to NBC News, as of Wednesday, at least five trains had been pulled out of service due to bed bugs this month.

The Transit Workers’ Union is expressing a lot of concern about its members. A conductor claims to have been bitten Monday on the N train, according to this Daily News article.  The Daily News also reported in mid-August that at least one cleaner (who cleans N and Q trains) and one conductor have discovered bed bugs at home during this same period; the cleaner asked the MTA for assistance with treatment, as she might have brought bed bugs home from work, but so far they are refusing to help.

I am all for people being notified of bed bugs being found in public places, and here’s why:  the more we expose the presence of bed bugs, the more people will realize how prevalent this problem is.

Maybe we can get people to take time to learn the signs of bed bugs, and what bed bugs look like, so they can check their seats before sitting down in public places, and so they can learn to detect the signs if they ever appear at home or work.  More awareness that bed bugs just “happen” and are not some kind of punishment for a lack of cleanliness can only help bring the issue more into the open.

More people talking about bed bugs means more people knowing more about bed bugs and therefore quite possibly fewer people getting bed bugs.

The downside of this sort of legislation is that some people will panic, as some no doubt already are.  I can hear some of you thinking, “Oh no!  Now bed bugs are on the subway too!”

Not exactly– there were surely bed bugs in the subway at least going back several years.  You just weren’t aware of it.  Being more aware does not necessarily equal being more at risk.

Another concern is that some folks already think bed bugs are “everywhere” — which also isn’t true.  They can be almost anywhere, but they are far from everywhere.  Even if there are some bed bugs on some subway trains, that does not mean they are all over any subway train, let alone all over a subway line.  For example, in the case of the N, the problem seemed to be concentrated largely around conductor’s seats and employee locker rooms.

We do need to be vigilant and learn what bed bugs look like, and record* and report sightings.  The NYC security mantra “If you see something, say something” doesn’t just apply to unattended parcels.  And the MTA does need to take this problem seriously and to train employees to look for bed bugs and their signs before someone complains about them being present.

But please don’t panic, and don’t top riding the subway and buses.


*Yes, I said “record” sightings– if you see what you think is a bed bug in public, by all means take a photo!  And then report it.

Update (8/28): Gil Bloom has commented below to clarify that while he has identified the insect found on the 4 as a bed bug, he can’t verify where it came from.  Thanks, Mr. Bloom!

 Image credit: “MTA: Off by a Factor of at Least 10^3” by David Goehring on Image used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

1 G BLOOM August 28, 2014 at 5:19 pm

Please note that while I did ID a bed bug in a photo emailed me by a reporter, I have no idea of it’s actual origin. Thank you

2 BedBugSupply August 29, 2014 at 9:11 am

I’m conflicted about this law. On the one hand, it could be an effective way to raise awareness of bed bugs when awareness is sorely needed. However, I worry that legislation like this is just shifting the blame to the MTA, who can’t really do anything feasible to stop bed bugs from being there.

3 TheApplause August 30, 2014 at 12:27 am

ITA with what you have written Nobugs. I do believe most people in NYC have heard of BBs. However, not everyone really knows what they look like. People should be aware that BBs can be found anywhere, not just hotels, which is what the media chooses to focus on for the most part. IMHO, people have a false sense of security that the problem can’t happen to them. I think a bit of healthy denial is called for as it would be hard to function otherwise as you really can pick up BBs anywhere, but people need to be aware so they can avoid obvious infestations or recognize a problem at home quickly. The problem in NYC is quite unique compared to other regions in the US because of the real estate structure and the city infrastructure.

I really wish the federal and state governments would start taking this problem a lot more seriously. If not for the financial devastation it causes citizens and businesses alike.

4 TheApplause August 30, 2014 at 12:33 am

I also should note, that it is a telling thing about BBs, as you said…while they can be anywhere, they are not everywhere. Even in a city as populous and busy as NYC, only a small or moderate percentage of people have them. That is a bit of a comfort.

5 nobugsonme August 30, 2014 at 12:51 am

Mr. Bloom,
Thanks for your comment! I have posted an update to the blog post above reflecting the information you’ve provided.

6 nobugsonme August 30, 2014 at 12:53 am

Hi BedbugSupply,

Thanks for your comment!

Of course it’s not the MTA’s fault if/when bed bugs are brought onto trains. However, I believe that — like most organizations, companies, public entities of all kinds — it may be so that they could do more to train staff to recognize them, and on what to do when they’re found.

One report noted the MTA has used bed bug sniffing dogs in some of the cases. This could be very useful if the handler is visually verifying the dog’s alerts.

7 nobugsonme August 30, 2014 at 1:06 am

Thanks for your comments!

I agree with much of what you’ve said. My only caveat would be that while I do think the government could do much more, they’ve done quite badly in terms of legislation in some cases. A lot of the legislation which has been proposed over the years is faulty and shows a lack of understanding of how bed bugs operate. (In this case and the school disclosure bill in NY, I don’t think they’re entirely bad ideas.)

I am also not sure NYC is that different from other cities which often have what I suspect are comparatively bad bed bug problems. Toronto is an obvious example, but there are many more. They may differ in key ways but they may also have it as bad, or worse.

This MTA legislation is a lot like the legislation about bed bug disclosure in NYC schools, in that it attempts to alert people to the presence of bed bugs in a service they’re using. The appropriate response to finding out a school you work in or your child attends has bed bugs is more extreme, perhaps including (and of course, I am not an expert of any kind): learning what bed bugs look like, inspecting at home, using bed bug monitors at home, and maybe taking some precautions at school or after school (such as isolating belongings in a sealed plastic bag, washing items and drying them on hot, or similar steps), being mindful not to go overboard or cause too much disruption or upset to children. That can be very tricky.

The appropriate response to the MTA bed bugs (again from an amateur perspective) might be: inspecting train seats before sitting down (I’m talking a glance, not a careful inspection which is likely to alarm other passengers), learning what bed bugs look like, inspecting at home and using a monitor. Note I kind of think everyone should do those things anyway — and regardless of whether one’s train line has reports of bed bugs. David Cain has suggested not sitting on public transport. That may help but isn’t an option for many.

I welcome expert input on those “appropriate responses”– feel free to tell me I am way off base!

8 Ned Henry October 4, 2014 at 10:17 pm

I am also of kind of two minds about the recent publicity and these laws. I’ve known that bedbugs could lurk on the subway (esp. in the oh-so-comfy wood seats on the platforms!) ever since I had a scare about 5 years ago. (I actually got a small infestation, almost certainly from a downstairs neighbor, managed to eradicate it with self-help measure while the landlord was really great about getting rid of bed bugs in the apartments which were more infested.)

I react really strongly to bedbug bites, so I’m kind of a canary in the mines.

The other side of this is something that I think is represented by a conversation I had with a friend a couple of months ago. Whatever impression one might get from online stuff, New Yorkers overall seem to be less panicked about bedbugs, more reasonable. We asked why? Maybe it’s that we’ve learned that the problem isn’t a reason to panic. (Heck, West Nile Virus is more of a reason to panic, and it’s off our radar for the most part, and is in any case hardly a reason to panic.)

I myself, after m scare, had a whole series of itchy bumps that were wholly psychosomatic. (I was so paranoid that I verified this.) I now do not panic: I know the difference between my “itchy bumps” and the horrid things I get from bedbugs. I think this has happened to a lot of us in NYC: we had an experience, learned from it, learned (among other things) that we wouldn’t get the plague from bedbugs, and got sensible about prevention and detection, which means (among other things) not panicking!

At least, that is my hope.

It’s good for people to report these sightings. I now wish I’d known how to report my bite way back then. Where I work, bedbug sightings are most often it the space where people who have sedentary jobs work. I’m sure this is not a coincidence, and it’s not a condemnation of those workers either. It’s just how it is.

When we stop regarding presence of bedbugs as just a problem to be solved, and not evidence of moral failing, that will be a big triumph. I think we’re on the way to that goal in NYC.

9 Ned Henry October 4, 2014 at 10:19 pm

Edit the last paragraph. I meant to write:

When we START regarding the presence of bedbugs as just a problem to be solved […]

10 warfareonbugs January 30, 2015 at 4:03 am

I added a response to bed bugs in restaurants on this thread:
I called NYC 311 afterward to report getting bit by a beg bug. They said 311 only records reports in residential buildings, and not restaurants or other places. What is up with that?! If bed bugs are feasting on people in public, I think it should be tracked by city agencies.

11 nobugsonme January 30, 2015 at 1:46 pm

The city should absolutely be tracking bed bug complaints in other venues.
There may not be a specific tracking at 311 for this, but 311 should be able to tell you who to complain to about a restaurant.

I believe your best bet is to file a Food Establishment Complaint form, which can be found here. Bed bugs would seem to qualify as “an unsafe condition in a restaurant”.

Good luck to you!

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