Village Voice: “Bed bugs and Beyond”

by nobugsonme on December 13, 2006 · 23 comments

in bed bugs, misinformation, new york, usa

Welcome to readers of the Village Voice article by Mara Altman.

Before she wrote her article, for which I declined to be interviewed, Mara Altman emailed me to ask why it is so hard to get people to speak about their experiences with bed bugs, and she wonders in this article why people who do speak wish to remain anonymous. After her article, with its patronizing tone towards “neurotic” bed bug sufferers, it will no longer be such a wonder.

She did not mention that “Diane,” whose paranoia she mocks, has darned good reason to fear getting bed bugs again. Why? Well, I know for a fact that Diane got rid of nearly everything she owned and sealed the rest into storage. She knew how to prevent spreading bed bugs and took every precaution. And she nevertheless soon found the bugs in the very next place she took up residence. Under similar circumstances, what rational person would not start to be extremely cautious?

Altman describes Diane’s and “Paul’s” reactions as if they are gross overreactions: “neurotic,” “paranoid,” dare I say it, crazy. And yet later, she writes:

Bedbugs are so itty-bitty that hundreds of eggs can fit on the head of a screw, and they can hole up in the smallest spaces–the crease of a lampshade, the hinge of a cupboard. And what makes them even more terrible is that they are obscenely durable–an adult bedbug can live more than one year without a meal. The chemicals, such as DDT, that formerly worked are now off the market for the role they played in causing silent springs, so exterminators are still lacking an answer to the problem.The best they can do is integrate many techniques: eliminate clutter, vacuum everything, inspect, monitor, and douse the place with chemicals. Meanwhile, they happily accept their fees.

Altman made Diane sound crazy for storing her stuff for 18 months, but wow, they really can live for a year without a meal. They really can come back again and again. It really does cost $400 a room to treat them in NYC, and you really might have to throw away everything you own. In light of those facts, paranoid, neurotic, and overly-cautious sound like sane reactions.

I know personally of a journalist in Canada who wrote an article about the spread of bed bugs and discovered them several months later in the apartment s/he was living in. This person did not catch the bugs from interviewing people; all the major cities in Canada are experiencing huge infestations, and the journalist theorized that s/he just got them, from a neighbor or on public transport or whatever. Who knows? The point is, it’s not so amusing when it happens to you, and it can happen to anyone.

Altman knows that people aren’t choosing to speak with her anonymously because “the bedbugs are taking notes.” The truth isn’t so cute, most sufferers are not delusional. As I told her before she wrote the article, in an email, it’s because people with bed bugs find it difficult when their friends, teachers, prospective employers, bosses, and clients find out they have bed bugs. Most of those I know with bed bugs are disclosing on a need-to-know basis, and being responsible about it. We tell dry cleaners, people who must enter our homes, people whose homes we have to explain why we can’t visit right now.

But we don’t necessarily want everyone we know to know. Some people are threatened with lawsuits by others who think the person is responsible for spreading the bug to them. This is beyond ridiculous: it’s like suing someone who has the flu, because you also have the flu: you may think you know who gave it to you, but you can never, ever be certain. Like the flu, people spread bed bugs before they know they have them. Many people are bitten for 2-4 months before they itch or see anything. Some for much longer.

Most importantly, Altman should look again at her statistics. She cites the 15 out of 100 of people who go into Pest Away wrongly thinking they have bed bugs every day; what about the other 85 out of 100, who do have bed bugs? If Pest Away is open 5 days a week, that’s 22,100 a year going to one Pest Control Operator (PCO) in NYC with bed bugs. One PCO out of hundreds of PCOs in the 5 boroughs. Altman nevertheless uncritically cites the city’s estimates that 1195 cases existed in the city last year (out of 4600 reported to 311). Obviously, these numbers don’t match up.

According to, there are are over 200 PCOs within 5 miles of my home. If each of them also got only 3 calls a day from people with actual infestations, five days a week, that would be an additional 156,000 cases per year. We can assume some PCOs have rates of bed bug customers approaching those of Pest Away; my estimates are conservative. And they add up to 178,100 cases of bed bugs either treated by Pest Away or by a PCO within 5 miles of my home, in one year. And that is only part of the 5-borough area. The city’s estimates of 1195 our of 4600 reported bed bug cases in NYC last year are obviously far from the actual number of bed bug infestations.

Early in the article, we’re told that:

The thought of them is making people itch–not the bedbugs themselves, whose numbers don’t even quite live up to the media hype.

Yet we’re also told that from 2002 to 2006:

That’s an increase [in bed bug infestations in NYC] of 231,800 percent (not to mention a 25,000 percent increase in bedbug articles in newspapers and magazines).

If the incidence has grown by nine times as much as the reportage has grown, as Altman states, that isn’t media hype. That’s under-reporting.

This article will unfortunately make people even less likely to talk about having bed bugs, because the author chooses to take the low road and mock sufferers. She omits facts that might make their behavior seem a bit more reasonable. And ultimately, she misses the chance to help people realize that they need to take action to stop the spread of bed bugs, because she underestimates the seriousness of the problem.

If 178,000 or more New York City residents may have suffered from bed bugs this past year, then 44 times that is 8 million, the number of New Yorkers in the last census. 44 times as many bed bugs does not seem like much, since the leap of confirmed cases reported to 311 from the period 2002-2006 was from 2 cases to 1195 cases: 597 times as many bed bugs in four years.

We’re worried because we realize how fast bed bugs are spreading, how easily they spread, how difficult and costly they are to eradicate (most infestations take not 1-2 pest control treatments as Altman states, but 2 or more), and how clearly the city’s statistics cover up the scope of the problem (which has now been reported in 24 of our city’s public schools), a fact the statistics from Pest Away’s Jeff Eisenberg demonstrate.

1 hopeless December 13, 2006 at 4:25 pm

Hi–I was also saddened by the tone of the article. Isn’t-this-amusing and oh-these-crazy-newyorkers.

An article written by a non-sufferer for other non-sufferers.

It’s sadder still that such condescending attitudes will likely abruptly end when this hits closer to home. In the end, it’s OK that Mara Altman is laughing now. It only means she and her loved ones are still safe.

2 bedbugresource December 13, 2006 at 5:16 pm

Hear me out …

I read everything bed bug related I can get my hands on. Research papers, historical references, biology, treatment, etc. etc.

Every piece of media in the last five years about bed bugs has been predicated around fear. Fear sells. Period.

I am refreshed to read something that is lighthearted and sarcastic for a change. Woa … don’t fry me yet. I did not take the article seriously at all. In fact, a portion of my laughter was sprung by the reporter’s ignorance.

I have no doubt that the people here are suffering. And as you can tell by my input and articles I am trying to do my part to help. I understand what you are going through. I see it day in and day out. I constantly get emails and calls, and I visit on site. I know what bed bugs can do.

I also receive samples (scabs, threads, buttons, seeds, etc.) from people that claim to have bed bugs (or other parasites). So I understand where this reporter was going with this.


I do not agree with her belittling those that had the courage to let her into their lives for a peak at what they are going through. To take statements, photos, and collect data from sources that take this as a serious matter and twist it the way she did was unethical.

These people that she interviewed had actual bed bug infestations yet she made it out to be ficticious and delusionary.

As someone already pointed out she has clearly not endured bed bugs. Had she, I doubt the article would have carried the tone it did.

I know that some of the people mentioned in that article are members of the Yahoo Group and regularly read this blog. For you I offer my apologies on behalf of those that take the issue seriously.

Bed bugs are back and they are here to stay. The statistics speak for themselves.

Entomologist / Pest Professional

3 deb December 13, 2006 at 6:06 pm

Bedbugs are a nightmare. Having them is untenable. Knowing that as Sean says “They are back and here to stay”, makes me sick to my stomach. I hope something can be invented or re-invented, that will take them away, as happened in the 1940’s. Ms. Altman is immature..a “cub reporter”..she knows not and unfortunately she blew a good opportunity to educate the public. We need as much media coverage as possible. Unsuspecting people could possibly avoid infestation or recognize an existing infestation sooner ..IF ..there were Public Health warnings…yet a cover of denial continues….I ask Ms. Altman to do another story. With the proper statistics as stated above. Hopefully by the grace of a God or the goodness of the Universe, she and or her family, will not ever know the nightmare of a bedbug infestation. Ridiculing people who are hurting is mean spirited. If anyone reads this..I warn you…be very very careful…bed bugs are destructive, to evey aspect of a life. Going to sleep, in a stressful world , the very least someone in the United States should expect is the sanctity of their beds…Bed bugs rob a person of all sanctity, Bed bugs don’t nest..they infest…and they infest a bed..and crawl on a sleeping body, and suck blood. And multiply fast, because of our blood…

4 jessinchicago December 13, 2006 at 10:17 pm

I think Mara Altman’s article was meant to be humorous, though given the level of incoherence, I can’t be sure. I think the point of the piece was to highlight the “paranoia” associated with the growing attention to bed bugs in the media and elsewhere that the author obviously detects.

What I find to be truly humorous about the article (sniveling and yammering and cleaver-weilding aside, of course- the utter disregard for the victims she interviewed is inexcusable and not at all funny) is that in her quest to make “bedbug paranoia” a laughable matter, she actually provides readers with MANY reasons to BE paranoid.

For example, in the first section of the article, Altman herself calls bed bugs “the scourge.” Scourge is, according to Webster, “a cause of wide or great affliction.” Altman goes on, in the very next sentence, to note two of the many hardships that befall the infested: bagging all possessions and being shunned by friends. At the conclusion of this first part of the article, Altman says that there are “10,566,882 gallons of bedbug food” in New York City alone. She then asks, “Is it any wonder we’re terrified?” Why no, Ms. Altman, it’s not.

In the next part of the work, the author points out that “bedbugs have transformed the lives of thousands, if not millions.” She goes on to note that confirmed bed bug infestations in NYC have increased by “231,800 percent” since 2002. That’s scary, no?

Even Altman’s commentary on the New York Pest Expo contributes to the validation of the very “paranoia” she mocks. She writes, “So many exterminators in the crowd have had experience with the pests, and yet most still don’t know how to deal them a knockout dose.” Entirely true. I bet the average person is a little uneasy, to say the least, to learn that there is no easy way to eradicate bedbugs. You get bedbugs, and you’ve got ’em, for quite some time. Feeling slightly paranoid?

The kicker for me, though, is Altman’s own reaction to two of her interviewees, because I detect a ring of truth behind the sarcasm. I bet, deep down, a part of her really did “regret not doing snow angels in [Paul’s] death powder” before she left his apartment. And I wonder why Ms. Altman chose to keep asking Andrea Mitrovich, the person who just learned of her infestation, questions about how she would conduct her life, post-confirmed infestation. Why did she ask “Will you change how you live from now on? Will you ever have people over again? Do you feel itchy even when nothing is there? Are you going to tell your friends?”

Why? Is it because Mara Altman, at the conclusion of her research, began to understand that the paranoia is actually not paranoia at all, but intelligence based on experience and desire to act responsibly? Why did Ms. Altman “freak out… because [Mitrovich’s] sweater just brushed up against [her] purse?” Why on Earth did she automatically make the connection that Mitrovich has bedbugs, and the sweater touched the purse, and the purse is made of natural fibers, and bedbugs love natural fibers?

I think Mara Altman got a little… paranoid.


5 Caitlinator December 14, 2006 at 9:49 am

I don’t really know if paranoia is truly the answer here, though, and it makes me kind of angry that she portrayed it as such. What people need is solid, factual information that they can use to make their own choices on how to handle an infestation. This article belittles the feelings of fear and paranoia at the same time that it perpetuates them by sensationalizing it.

Realistic approaches to handling bedbug infestations are hard to find anywhere because the emotional fallout is so great. I do think that while it’s important to acknowledge the emotional aspects of dealing with bedbugs, it’s really important to be able to put aside those feelings to think about the problem rationally. Otherwise, through panic, we’ll only make mistakes and make the problem worse.

6 Brian December 14, 2006 at 12:12 pm

I agree with all of you that this article was extremely un-helpful in the tone it took towards people suffering with this. My wife and I are going through this right now, we’ve had 3 treatments, all of our clothes are in bags, we have a 20 month old daughter whose every slight bump and bruise we have to wonder about whether or not it’s a bite, etc. This is really NOT a case of ‘oh those funny neurotic New Yorkers and their concerns’ but a nightmare for a growing part of the city’s population.

Finally, I was so disappointed in the Village Voice. Of all the media outlets where a true discussion of how serious a problem this is could have really helped make a difference, instead they get some condescending young reporter to mock sufferers and downplay the problem. Thanks Mara! Really helpful! I hope the Voice will be be-seiged with letters criticizing this article.

And Mara, get back to us if YOU find yourself suffering through this nightmare. Then we’ll see if you still think we’re neurotic!!

7 bedbugresource December 14, 2006 at 12:22 pm

The fact that she is a writter for the Village Voice implies that she lives in a multiunit residence … her time will come 🙂

8 jessinchicago December 14, 2006 at 12:46 pm


I meant to tell you yesterday that I appreciated your post. I think you are a stand-up guy and I always look forward to hearing what you have to say. I’m glad you’re here to help and I hope you’re in for the long haul.



9 jessinchicago December 14, 2006 at 1:19 pm

A two-part comment:

First, Brian, welcome. I’m sorry to hear that you and your family are going through this. I hope you take some comfort in knowing that you’ve got several seasoned warriors and even a few experts available to you here, and we are eager to help in any way we can. We’re all in this together.

And to Caitlin- It’s great to see you here. I’m so glad you commented.


10 Brian December 14, 2006 at 2:04 pm

Thanks Jess! Yea, it’s a total nightmare, as i’m sure anyone on this board will attest to! And having a young child to worry about and try not to freak out in front of just makes it worse! She’s too young to be able to ask why we’ve had to put everything in our apartment in plastic bags 3x and go away for the w/e to grandma and grandpa’s house, but she will be soon enough if we don’t get rid of these things!! Anyone else dealing with bedbugs and children?

And as I said, when I saw the cover of the Village Voice (this was their cover article this week, assume from your moniker that you’re in Chicago!) I really felt like ‘oh, cool, the Voice is going to really do a good, hard-hitting article on this’ and it was so disappointing the way the article was done! They’ve been going downhill for the last year or so since they were purchased by some bigger company, but still, they do some great investigative reporting, and this seems like a perfect topic for some real journalism, and that’s just not what we got from that article!

11 nobugsonme December 14, 2006 at 3:35 pm

Hey, good to see all the responses. I’ll echo Jess’s welcome to Brian, joy at seeing Caitlin, and appreciation of Sean. Not to leave Deb and Hopeless out, since we at Bedbugger are, if nothing else, a big old love-fest.

Some would say a big old CRAZY love-fest. 😉

I hope Brian and any other newcomers will find this site a resource. If there’s anything we can help with, let us know. We may well not know the answer, but we know bug guys who know what answers there are. Sometimes, also, a fellow Bedbugger can offer advice that is invaluable.

Those who are newer to the bed bug war than Brian might need the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) a bit more.

But Brian–and anyone else– might find additional support at the Bedbugger Yahoo group (founded by Caitlin). Brian– there have been posts on the yahoo group about surviving bed bugs with kids– so check it out. But we hope you’ll keep reading and commenting here too.

Anyway, Caitlin is spot-on that paranoia is not helpful. I hope we can offer some practical solutions. I do think awareness of the scope of this problem, and how we might eradicate it, is important.

But there’s that fine line between raised awareness and paranoia…

12 nobugsonme December 14, 2006 at 3:36 pm

ps Brian the Yahoo Bedbugger Group is linked from the sidebar under Information and Help.

Or here:

13 parakeets December 14, 2006 at 5:36 pm

I can’t help but feel the sincerity, honesty, and committment of the bedbug sufferers (“Diane”, “Paul”) in the Village Voice article valiantly shine through–and out-shine–the coy and sophomoric attempts at humor by author Mara Altman.

It is never professional journalism for an author to pre-judge and slant the facts to put a spin on a story. But, as people have pointed out here, the facts about bedbugs, even in Ms. Altman’s article, speak for themselves (so, bedbug article writer, take note). In her coy cuteness, Ms. Altman reveals more about her own limited compassion and knowledge of human suffering.

Here is an example from the Boston Herald of an author who went out and interviewed bedbug victims and captured their pain.\

Ms. Altman should read the Herald article and weep. I have a feeling if “Diane” and “Paul” weren’t so upscale, articulate and educated, Ms. Altman wouldn’t have felt safe being so flippant with her mocking tone. This Village Voice article was a good opportunity to educate the public but it was wasted on this writer. I bet within this month several people that Ms. Altman knows personally will come up to her and tell her they have bedbugs. It will be too late for her to change her tune. This article may come to haunt this writer as the bedbug problem becomes more known.

14 parakeets December 15, 2006 at 10:41 am

Mara Altman is a dumpster diver? According to this site
someone with her name is a Brooklyn dumpster diver.

Well, guess what? The chances of a Brooklyn dumpster diver getting bedbugs are high, high, high. What goes around, comes around. I am positive the tables will turn and the Mara Altmans of this world won’t be laughing at what they think is bedbug paranoia anymore. Instead they will be going to the “Paul’s” and “Diane’s,” begging for help.

15 nobugsonme December 16, 2006 at 2:56 am

Parakeets, you should win googling awards. You amaze me!

16 John C. Randolph December 20, 2006 at 4:04 am

Let’s place the blame were it belongs: with the junk science and sensationalism of Rachel Carson’s book “silent spring”. She got DDT banned on a wave of hysteria, and besides the bedbugs coming back to a continent where we had eradicated them, she got a few million people killed by malaria in the meantime, thanks to the mosquitos she saved.

I wish I believed in hell, because I want her to be rotting in it.


17 nobugsonme December 20, 2006 at 10:21 am

Wow, John, that’s pretty extreme! I have not hate for Rachel Carson. I don’t think we can blame one person for all the others who followed her advice. I do think we (as in citizens of countries who banned DDT and pressured other countries not to use it) to re-examine this. I do think that “we” IS responisble, not a dead environmentalist.

18 Bugalina December 20, 2006 at 12:40 pm

Truth be told, the banning of DDT did result in the death of millions of people. This is a hard pill to swallow for the “egos” of the scientific communities. Bayer Science, the makers of Suspend and Drione, fought against the lifting of the DDT ban. Their products, as we all know, require multiple spraying for bed bugs, and are not a guarantee to work 100 percent. They are also harmful if misused. They don’t want DDT because it is much cheaper and requires fewer applications. Follow the money trail. The talk is that bed bugs are resistant to DDT…well how come DDT is now being used so effectively against the malaria mosquitos !!! The naysayers want to scare us with their talks of resistance and super bugs…I don’t believe them, if they are so intelligent how come they can’t come up with a product to kill off a bed bug infestation! It was the misuse of DDT that was dangerous..not the use…It is not a perfect world, everything is a trade off….

19 Sean December 21, 2006 at 11:07 am

DDT – A touchy topic.

To clear things up, bed bugs showed resistance to DDT before it was banned. Bringing it back is not going to be a miracle cure.

Pests of all sorts develop resistance to pesticides that are used too frequently or incorrectly (offering sub-lethal doses). DDT was one of them.

Likely the strains today would not be immediately resistant to DDT but the propensity for development is there.

We have plenty of active ingredients that bed bugs are not resistant or immune to. The problem is that we do not have enough people thoroughly trained in bed bug erradication. Nor do we have many companies that are willing to spend the time it takes to do the job right.

DDT was used VERY irresponsibly. If it were brought back it would be treated with MUCH more respect.

Some photos of the misuses of DDT. We were ignorant:

DDT will likely not surface in North America again but in areas riddled with malaria I do believe we will see it used.

Entomologist / Pest Professional

20 Bugalina December 21, 2006 at 3:52 pm

Sean It is being used…The World Health Organization lifted the ban in October…and thousands of lives are being saved in South Africa and Uganda and other nations that are using it. And as an added bonus they are seeing a decrease in bed bug populations. Suspend and Demand are neuro toxins..and they don’t do the job. If we could use DDT to eradicate them now and the strains would not immediately be resistant then we should use it now..while developing other effective products. But lets get rid of them now….I spoke with a Mr. Harold Stein. He is the president Of Crane Pest Control in San Francisco. He testified at the EPA hearings in the 70’s to prevent the banning of DDT. He told me, back in August of 2006 that DDT was the best pesticide his company ever had. He told me that he always had success in eradicating any bbs with DDT…one time $18.00. This is from the “horse’s mouth”…he used it , he saw what it did. So when people tell me/us that bed bugs are resistant to DDT..who are we to believe…Mr. Stein who used it successfully up until the 1970’s ? Of some younger lab scientists who have no field experience to go on.. They hear the letters DDT and react just from that..not from experience. ….I put my money on Mr. Stein…Deb

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