Bed bugs spread when no one who can pay for treating them is responsible for treating them

by nobugsonme on July 1, 2009 · 3 comments

in bed bug blame game, bed bugs, landlords and tenants, maryland

A new article from Baltimore’s City Paper is troubling.

Landlords in Baltimore who rent out single-family homes are not responsible for treating for bed bugs in those homes, even if the “single-family home” is a kind of unofficial rooming-house with fifteen or more residents. As you may guess, the residents may also lack the funds to treat their homes for bed bugs. (Owners of multi-family units are responsible for treatment for bed bugs, though many are finding this extremely challenging, both financially, as well as because bed bugs are just really hard to get rid of.)

Many people in Baltimore, including Mark Adams, who is profiled in this article, attribute the “cause” of bed bugs to their neighbors’ Latino/a ethnicity. And this is where it starts to get ugly.

The bottom line is that if your neighbors have bed bugs and do not get proper treatment, you will probably get bed bugs, and you will not be able to get rid of them.
This is true whatever your neighbors’ ethnicity, country of origin, religion, or economic class.

The real problem here is that no one is required to treat these single-family homes for bed bugs.

Edward Ericson, Jr. writes for City Paper, that

in the southeastern Baltimore City neighborhoods of Butchers Hill, Upper Fells Point, Fells Prospect, and Highlandtown, the [bed bug] trouble has often attached itself to and spread out from de facto rooming houses filled with extended families and working men.


The Baltimore City Health Department itself acknowledges the correlation, though not the causation, in a “Bed Bug Response Plan” it quietly released on April 20. “Pest control companies and the Hispanic Apostolate noted the pronounced bed bug problem in the Latino community, perhaps due to travel and frequent relocations,” the plan notes.

Asked during a June 8 phone conversation to expand on that observation, three Baltimore Health Department officials say nothing for several seconds. “I think that’s where we’ve seen a fair amount of our complaints coming in,” Interim Commissioner Olivia Farrow finally says, speaking of the Latino community. But she and others stress, bed bugs are not confined to the Hispanic population.

“Bed bugs don’t discriminate,” says Sarah Norman, chief of the city Lead, Asthma and Injury Prevention bureau. “All they care about is whether you’re alive.”

Anyone who doubts this should spend some time on our Bedbugger Forums. Although most posters are anonymous, you do get a sense of the diversity of ethnic, national, and socio-economic backgrounds represented.

However, let’s leave aside habits of “travel and frequent relocations,” for a moment and consider the fact that the residents of this single-family row-house are likely unable to pay for their own bed bug treatment. They may lack information about bed bugs and how difficult they are to treat. They may not know where to get help (if, indeed, there is anywhere to get help.)

The city rightly acknowledges that the bed bug blame game does not work:

In a four-way telephone conversation on June 8, city health officials explain that fixing blame for a given infestation is effectively beyond the ken of local government. “We do get a lot of bedbugs going from place to place,” Sarah Norman says. “The difficulty is verifying. Do they have some evidence?”

“You have to get into both properties,” Olivia Farrow adds. “It’s a lengthy investigation.”

Add to that gaps in the city’s laws that make the owners of multi-family dwellings responsible for pest eradication, but don’t obligate the owners of single-family houses to fumigate, no matter how many people are living there, and code-enforcement appears to be a non-starter–at least where the Health Department is concerned.

“So the real thing is education,” Norman says. “What we do is we knock on the door and we really try to create a relationship with the neighbors.”

The Health Department is currently trying to snare federal grants that might, if they come through, help at least some of the city’s low-income families shoulder the cost of eradicating bed-bug infestations. “We are hoping to make a national model about how this kind of thing can be done,” Kasameyer says at the June 16 community meeting.

(Emphasis mine.)

That’s good news. Please make it happen quickly.

The bottom line is that — since the cost of bed bug treatment in Baltimore lies with them — single-family home tenants and small-scale multi-unit landlords may need help in paying for treatment. They also need to educate residents and enforce treatment of those single-family homes.

Baltimore clearly needs affordable, effective pest control to be available to everyone.

And when bed bugs are spreading from row-house to row-house, it really could soon be everyone who has them.

Be sure to check out the article, and the interesting link to a map of bed bug infestations reported to Baltimore’s 311 since 2006.

Update (7/2):

Compare this story from ABC: “Southeast Baltimore Infested with Bed Bugs”

What a difference it makes when the focus is on neighborhoods.

1 cilecto July 4, 2009 at 1:51 am

Hate to say it, but even supposed “gurus” like Australia’s Steve Dogget offer veiled suggestions of ethnic profiling: “18.1.14. Risk Assessment and Management
Those in the accommodation industry, who are seriously affected by bed bugs,
should undertake a risk analysis of past infestations. Rooms afflicted should be
analysed to see where the past guests have come from, whether they be from a
local region or from overseas. If clear patterns emerge, then the high risk groups
should be kept separately from the low risk groups. This may help to contain
infestations to certain rooms and to a certain area of a facility.”
– Doggett, Stephen L., “A Code of Practice For the Control of Bed Bug Infestations in Australia, 2nd Edition, November 2007”

The more this spreads, the more “racial profiling” we’re likely to see, based on facts, or speculation. I fear that the whole concept of “urban” life will be, once again, deprecated.

2 DougSummersMS July 4, 2009 at 4:32 pm


You raise a really interesting point, but I think we should give Dr Doggett the benefit of the doubt here….

Doggett is suggesting an evidence based risk analysis …. I do see your point….. The results of an objective analysis could still be twisted into ethnic discrimination… in practice by others….. Suggesting the analysis is a reasonable action for a scientist …. How that data is translated into practice is the public policy issue that has some clear pitfalls with regard to demographics like race, economic / social status or country of origin.

Let’s say a large group of firefighters (24 infested fire stations) from Cincinnati are visiting a hotel in Australia. If evidence based observation demonstrated that most of their rooms are now infested…. Would it be unreasonable to expect that they would be isolated in a proper fashion & processed in accordance with the Doggett’s published protocol …. to control the spread of a known parasitic infestation?

In a scientific context, I think analysis is a proper action in terms of understanding the etiology of the infestation….. “Accommodation industries….. who are seriously affected by bed bugs, should undertake a risk analysis of past infestations …… If clear patterns emerge, then the high risk groups should be kept separately from the low risk groups. This may help to contain infestations to certain rooms and to a certain area of a facility.”

Would it be acceptable, for example, to isolate commercial flight crews…. if we observed that their rooms were 700% more likely to become infested than other guest rooms?

At the same time, one could see how such policies could be misapplied to justify social discrimination that would be completely unrelated to the control of bed bug infestations….

The issue would seem to be… How do we practice aggressive infestation control without compromising important public policies that mandate social non-discrimination?

3 Beth M July 6, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Yep, you are so right. Thanks for posting this interesting article.

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