Attention Oxford Mail editors: bed bugs did not return because students suddenly stopped cleaning their flats

by nobugsonme on July 7, 2007 · 3 comments

in bed bug blame game, bed bug epidemic, bed bugs, bed bugs and students, bed bugs in colleges, bed bugs in low-income housing, england, history, misinformation, spread of bed bugs, united kingdom

In this article from Friday’s Oxford (UK) Mail, journalist Giles Sheldrick tries to drive home the point that unclean homes, or people who don’t clean often, or who have poor hygeine, are “responsible for bed bugs.”

Students are partly to blame for an explosion in bed bugs in Oxford, according to pest control experts Rentokil.

The company said it had seen a 64 per cent increase in the number of bed bug-related callouts in the city between June 2006 and June 2007.

The increase in the city is higher than the national average, which the company said was a 52 per cent year-on-year rise.

Interestingly, the same representative of the same firm told the Daily Mail on Thursday that the increase in Manchester was 179% during the same period. Much higher than that in Oxford.

Anyway, I’m waiting for how students are to blame. Here it comes:

Although Rentokil would not release the exact number of call-outs because it was deemed “commercially sensitive information”, the rise was blamed on: *Bad housekeeping by students and busy families *Bugs brought back from abroad as overseas travel becomes cheaper *An increase in the popularity of car boot sales and retro-style clothes.

While travel can help spread bed bugs, and secondhand items are definitely a huge risk factor, poor housekeeping per se is not the cause of bed bugs. Nor will they stay away if your home is pristine. All of the experts on bed bugs will tell you that bed bugs are as happy to suck the blood of a “clean” person as a dirty one, and happy to live in your “clean” home and sleep near your tidy bed.

Bed bugs did not come back in the last decade because students and working parents were suddenly messy.

And while we’re at it, your grandparents did not raise your parents in bed bug-free homes because they held themselves to a higher standard of hygiene. They did not have bed bugs because of a little chemical known as DDT which wiped them out for decades.

Bed bugs are back because of changes in pesticide use worldwide, coupled with ours being a highly mobile world.

And bed bugs are highly contagious. And they hide well, even in many clean homes.
The only way “clean” can help keep bed bugs away is if your idea of cleaning includes regular vacuuming of the mattress, bed frame, sofa and other soft chairs, and every crack and crevice around the perimeter of the bed room and living room.

“Clean” can also help you spot bed bugs or their leavings, if “clean” means “clutter-free” (which isn’t necessarily the case).

However, anyone can get and keep bed bugs. They can move into any home, hitch a ride in any tote bag or suitcase.

The only real nugget of truth in this article was this:

Rentokil technical director Savvas Othon said: “The large student population in Oxford is one of the possible reasons for the increase in bed bugs. Students travel a lot and move around socially, which allows them to spread.”

Yes–more social interaction, more “getting around” (whether that means travel, hanging out, or visiting lots of others’ homes) does affect the spread.

So does moving frequently. Student areas in Boston have likely seen bed bugs spread for this reason–with many universities in one town, you have the students (many in a new apartment or dorm room each year), the international travel during the breaks, people coming from all over to study, and then the student lifestyle which means going places (library, coffee shops, clubs, jobs, buses, trains, etc.) They may also not necessarily recognize the problem. And to be fair, from where we stand, university residences (dorms) and student landlords don’t always eliminate the problems well–so the next batch of student tenants will often inherit previous tenants’ infestations.

Let’s try and avoid the inaccurate association of “dirty” homes with bed bugs. And let’s not stigmatise students who have bed bugs–they don’t have them because they did anything wrong. In this sense saying the “students are partly to blame” seems inaccurate to me. Their lifestyles are conducive to spreading bed bugs.

So are those of business people who travel, jet-setting CEOs, politicians, rich holiday travelers, actors, sports teams and so on. It’s easy to blame students, or drug users and prostitutes, but it is not accurate. I think passing the blame to one or a few groups of people is not only inaccurate, it also gives others a false sense of security. And it accentuates the stigma of having bed bugs–the shame that keeps people from reporting them promptly, keeps them from getting treatment promptly, and keeps them from warning others (dry cleaners, friends they visit, etc.) that they might spread the problem.

Instead of talking about bed bugs like they’re an STD or a sign of poor hygiene, why not consider them to be like the ‘flu, or a cold? It’s not uncommon to warn a co-worker that you might sneeze on them (“Don’t stand too close, I have a bit of a cold”). While our lifestyles can make catching colds and flu more likely (indeed, spending time in planes seems to expose you to these “bugs” too), we don’t say, “Business people are partly to blame for the spread of the common cold.” And we don’t hesitate to warn someone about our contagious germs. I hope one day soon people will feel as free to warn others about their bed bugs, and as unlikely to blame the victim who caught a cold on the bus to work. Let’s drop the blame-and-shame-game.

Let’s never forget that the real problem is the bed bugs. And they’re happy to feed on you, whoever you are.

1 Delores July 25, 2007 at 9:13 am

I work with someone who is complaining she has bed bugs, has bites all over her, should she be asked not to come to work until this issue is taken care of?

2 hopelessnomo July 25, 2007 at 10:07 am

Hi Delores,

Please note that fighting bedbugs involves a lot of work and, often, repeated professional bed bug treatments. It’s usually not a matter that can be resolved in a few days.

One way you can help your co-worker, and others in your workplace, is to suggest that they read the FAQs on this site. They explain the basics, what to expect, how to find a professional to get treatment, how to take care of clothing and how not to spread bedbugs to others.

If your co-worker launders all her clothing per the FAQs, and protects her shoes and bag, she should not carry any bedbugs with her to work.

Your co-worker will need a lot of support and may need days off here and there to manage, but bedbugs are not the flu.

Let us know if you have any other questions. I’m glad your are taking the initiative and trying to find more information. One of the reasons bedbugs spread is that people no longer have basic awareness about what they are, how to get rid of them, and how not to spread them.

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