Bedbugs Taking A Bite Out of New Yorkers

Published March 1, 2008

New York City is feeling the biting effects of anti-chemical laws as a bedbug epidemic has infested every part of the city.

The city received 7,000 bedbug infestation complaints in 2007, more than 10 times the number recorded as recently as 2004. City Council Member Gale Brewer (D-Upper West Side) is taking the unprecedented step of sponsoring a bill to create a bedbug task force.

All Income Groups Victimized

“We have three education forums planned where people can hear presentations from different city agencies about how to avoid getting bedbugs and how to deal with them once you get them,” Brewer said.

Brewer expressed special concern about unsuspecting city residents acquiring bedbugs when purchasing reconditioned mattresses. Her bill would ban the sale of reconditioned mattresses in the city. She is facing opposition from many quarters, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I).

“Banning the sale of reconditioned mattresses is a minimally effective Band-Aid approach to battling bedbugs, and it would harm lower-income families,” said Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. “Such a ban would not even be considered if government had not banned the sale of so many safe and effective pesticides.”

“But it’s not just mattresses,” Brewer said. “People of all income groups have been victimized, and it happens to even the most meticulous of home keepers. People even pick them up from such seemingly innocent sources as used books.”

DDT Ban Allowed Resurgence

The bloodsucking pests were all but eradicated shortly after World War II, but bans on DDT and other effective pesticides have enabled bedbug numbers to increase dramatically nationwide. Bedbugs are now “becoming the pest of the twenty-first century,” pest control experts warn, according to the Associated Press.

The epidemic is out of control across New York City. People are bringing home bedbugs they unknowingly picked up in taxis, movie theaters, five-star hotels, and even while giving birth in maternity wards.

“It’s becoming an epidemic,” Jeffery Eisenberg, owner of Pest Away Exterminating on the Upper West Side, told The New York Times for a November 27 report. “People are being tortured, and so am I. I spend half my day talking to hysterical people about bedbugs.”

Repeated, Expensive Treatments

“We have a lot of experienced pesticide folks, and I would go with what they are proposing,” Brewer recommended. “However, it usually requires multiple pesticide treatments, as well as the repeated treatment of clothes and furniture. It is a very expensive issue to deal with and can cost people thousands of dollars. People often can’t afford this.”

Because conventional pesticides are frequently not powerful enough to kill bedbugs, victims describe living nightmares trying to get rid of them. It costs roughly $2,000 to have a professional pesticide company treat a typical home, but even then the bedbugs are likely to remain.

The bugs hide by day in places such as picture frames, stereo speakers, bed boards, and wall interiors. At night, they emerge from their hiding places and gorge upon the flesh of sleeping humans, dogs, and cats.

Frustration Reaches Internet

Jackson Heights resident Caitlin Heller set up a Web site documenting her recurring bedbug infestation. Heller has had her apartment treated by professional exterminators repeatedly, bagged and hermetically sealed her clothes and bedding, and caulked all the cracks along her plasterboard walls.

Even so, the bugs return, leaving telltale blood stains and insect feces on her bed sheets.

“I can’t believe I have to go through all this [trouble] AGAIN,” wrote an exasperated Heller in a recent blog entry. “We bought large heavy-duty trash bags to put our clothes and linens into. … We’ll be pulling the furniture out away from the walls before we go to sleep tonight and vacuuming all the floors, removing the vacuum bag into another sealed bag and going directly into the trash compactor.”

Laws Let Bugs Loose

Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, reports insect infestations have become more difficult to treat as pesticides are targeted by environmental activist groups and subsequently banned by federal and state governments.

“For fighting bedbugs, it would be immensely helpful to have DDT as a potential option,” Logomasini said. “The national bedbug epidemic is very bad and getting worse.

“It’s not just DDT,” Logomasini added. “They have been getting rid of effective chemicals for decades, which leaves fewer and fewer options to fight bedbugs and other insect pests. The more options you take away, the more difficult it is to keep insect infestations under control or from happening in the first place.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.