Invasion of the bedbugs

news@sfbg.com

Editor’s Note: The writer has penned this story under a pseudonym because of concerns about social stigma and backlash from his landlord, as he discusses below.

More than three weeks had passed since our hike through Yosemite, so my girlfriend and I were starting to worry that the festering egg-shaped welts appearing daily on her arms, legs, and stomach weren’t just a late reaction to mountain mosquitoes. We’d rationalized the problem away until now, but when a bump appeared on her face, we decided to get professional help.

"It doesn’t make sense," my girlfriend told her dermatologist. "It can’t be spiders or fleas because I sleep with my boyfriend and he’s not getting bit. Maybe I’m allergic to my new detergent?"

"Nope," the doctor said. "You’ve got bedbugs."

Then he took some pictures of her wounds "to document the epidemic," wrote out a prescription for an anti-itch medicine, and sent her home to deal with the diagnosis, adding that she shouldn’t freak out because bedbugs don’t transmit diseases. They just make your life miserable, causing rashes, sleeplessness, paranoia, and embarrassment — which is why they’re considered a health risk on par with roaches, scabies, and lice.

But how exactly were we supposed to deal with this? Neither of us had ever even seen a bedbug, and we’d never heard of anyone getting bit. We really didn’t even believe in them. I mean, we’d both heard the old "good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite" rhyme, but we thought it was about ticks or maybe some fantastical little boogiemen, not actual bugs that live in or near your bed. That’s because, like most San Franciscans the age of 70, my girlfriend and I had grown up in a mostly bedbug-free world. But that’s over now.

Bedbugs are back and they’re eating San Francisco alive, sticking their blood-hungry proboscises in transient gutter punks, international travelers, homeless people, doctors, lawyers, and yes … maybe even you. They’re crawling around in our walls as we speak, scuttling from basket to basket in Laundromats, and camping out on buses and trains, waiting for new victims.

But where did they come from? And why are they here now, creeping out residents of civilized American cities that include Cincinnati, New York, and, most recently, San Francisco, where the Department of Public Health has received 307 complaints this year alone — a figure that’s soon to surpass last year’s total count of 327, according to DPH special operations manager Dr. Johnson Ojo.

Well, there are plenty of theories, but the truth is that nobody knows for sure. What we do know is that bedbugs are here and they are hungry. And, by the look of things, they’re not going anywhere soon. As travelers, tenants, homeowners, and landlords, our first mode of action against the epidemic is to learn how to deal. We’ve got to know how to prevent infestations, understand our rights when they occur, and finally come to grips with what it means to live in an infested city.

Of course, to do all of this, it helps to know a thing or two about the nasty fuckers.

WHAT ARE BEDBUGS?


Bedbugs are parasitic insects that feed on the blood of sleeping humans. One of the reasons you’re probably not familiar with them, the reason you might think they’re a myth or some dead epidemic from the Dark Ages when nobody washed, is that bedbugs were virtually annihilated from the western world by about 1960.

"Exterminators back then were quite fond of an insecticide called DDT," explained Luis Agurto Jr., president of a local integrated pest management company called Pestec. The chemical was great because it killed every bug in sight. Unfortunately, the virulent toxin wreaked havoc on the environment, killing most bald eagles and a wide variety of plant and animal life, as well as causing cancer and birth defects in humans. Rachel Carson’s landmark book exposing DDT, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962), helped launch the modern environmental movement. Most uses of the chemical were later banned in the U.S. and other countries, even though it meant finding new ways to keep our bugs under control.

Less toxic sprays were developed after DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. They worked on roaches and other pests, but what exterminators didn’t know at that time was that the new chemicals weren’t doing much to the bedbug diaspora that was still thriving in remote parts of America and the world. And these little bastards were nothing to mess with.

"These critters had been hammered so hard that, by the 1980s, they were growing impervious to any insecticide on the market," said Michael Potter, an entomology professor at The University of Kentucky and former national technical director for Orkin. "But nobody really noticed because most of these bugs were far away."

In addition to rural parts of the United States, bedbugs could still be found in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa. But Potter rejects the theory that increased travel and immigration are entirely to blame for the global resurgence, as some scientists speculate. "It’s not like we just started flying 10 years ago," he said.

Potter concedes that population movement has a lot to do with the issue, but said that blaming travelers and immigrants ignores certain facts and doesn’t quite explain why bedbugs are coming back in such large numbers. The truth is that bedbugs never really went away. Pockets of extremely resistant survivor cells simply laid low until their offspring could flourish once again. It didn’t take long for that to happen.

"The thing about chemicals is that they only work for a given amount of time," Agurto said. "Everything develops a tolerance after a while." No matter. The commercial use of carbamates and other organophosphates, the classes of insecticides that replaced DDT, were soon restricted in the U.S. after they, too, exhibited nasty environmental side-effects.

After that, pest control managers were forced to switch to pyrethroid-based insecticides — which a bedbug could go swimming in, Potter said — and preventive measures like steam-cleaning, vacuuming, and bait. These methods targeted cockroaches and other pests, but they essentially allowed bedbugs to thrive in a chemical-free paradise. This was in the early 1990s and, according to Potter and Agurto, it’s probably no coincidence that the first major infestations in American cities came to light soon after. By the end of the century, a few years after DDT was restricted to malaria zones worldwide, bedbugs were becoming a problem in the eastern United States. By 2001, they had become a hot news topic in cities in America and around the world.

The bedbug resurgence in New York City has been covered extensively by The New York Times, starting in 2001 with an article about hotels and hostels titled "Bedbugs; Sleeping with the Enemy." Subsequent reports tracked the spread of infestations through homeless shelters, SROs, and eventually into condos, apartments, and houses. But the tiny vampires aren’t stopping there.

Bedbugs, once thought of as a byproduct of poverty, are moving up in the world. "We’re seeing them now in upscale condos and private residencies in the best neighborhoods in town," Agurto said. "Places where people never imagined they’d have to deal with this kind of thing." But that’s not where the infestations stop either, not in New York and probably not here.

They’ve even infiltrated the headquarters of large corporations. One of the latest infestations of this sort, at the Penguin Group in Manhattan, made headlines recently when employees of the publishing company were sent home while the building underwent treatment. The same thing happened at Fox News’ Manhattan office in March of last year, and again this month at Bill Clinton’s offices in Harlem.

Spokespersons for these three entities claim to have things under control. But the question is, does treating the building really solve anything? What about the employees? And, in the case of Penguin, what about all those books? Aren’t they infected too? It would certainly seem so. But perhaps you’re also wondering why, if the epidemic is getting so out of hand, you still haven’t encountered a problem. Well, the truth is, the bedbugs might be closer to you than you think.

INVISIBLE INVADERS


There are dozens of reasons why you might not have noticed the resurgence, but probably the biggest is that it’s embarrassing: people don’t want to discuss the issue because it’s gross. But this line of thinking works against us, and if we ever want to learn how to handle the situation, we’ve got to come to terms with the fact that bedbugs have nothing to do with social class or cleanliness.

That’s something my girlfriend hasn’t quite been able to come to grips with, which is why I’m writing under a pseudonym. She hasn’t told anyone but her mother and she can’t stand the idea of bosses, friends, and potential employers Googling her name or mine and somehow finding this story. Yet I’ve come to realize, while researching this issue, that there’s really no reason to be ashamed.

"This is really the first time in human history where people — all people — aren’t constantly on the lookout for bedbugs," Potter said. "And our first course of action is to get reacquainted." That’s not as easy as it sounds. But here are some tips.

First, you should get rid of the idea that bedbugs are microscopic. They’re not. When bedbugs are born, they look like milky-white flax seeds, but after the first feeding they grow to the size of chili flakes and develop a similar hue. Full-grown bedbugs are about the length of a Tic-Tac. They’re brown and flat and they have six legs — something like a two-dimensional, oval-shaped tick with stripes.

Second, don’t underestimate the cunning nature of bloodsucking insects. Bedbugs may not be able to communicate with one another or build intricate nests, but evolution has blessed the species with one sinister adaptive trait: near-invisibility. Bedbugs are masters of disguise. They live in tiny crevices in hard-to-find places — box springs, mattresses, baseboards, etc. — and usually only come out when people are sleeping. But nocturnal dining habits and the ability to hide aren’t the only tools in a bedbug’s arsenal.

The real reason we can sleep soundly while hordes of insects wriggle through our undergarments and suck our blood is that these particular insects are equipped with anesthetic. Simply put, bedbug bites do not hurt. What’s even worse is that, unless you happen to be allergic to the numbing agent found in bedbug saliva, there’s not going to be any evidence in the morning either.

That’s why I thought my girlfriend was either completely insane or perhaps the victim of some unknown skin disorder, even after she got back from the doctor. I just couldn’t understand how a colony of insects could repeatedly bite one person and not even touch the other as he slept inches away. My girlfriend still had her doubts as well, but for lack of any other plausible answer, we decided to look deeper into the issue. This is when things got nasty and when I learned that many people (about half the population, according to various sources) do not react to bedbug bites at all.

After reading everything we could about bedbugs, watching horrendous videos of elderly people swatting insects off their bodies, and perusing vomit-inducing pictures of telltale bedbug signs — smeared blood, fecal stains, and carcass buildups — we did a thorough search of our bedroom and found a cluster between the carpet and the baseboard behind our bed. Now the question was: what to do next? It’s what everyone asks when they encounter an infestation. And sometimes, it’s hard to answer.

DEALING WITH THEM


"Many of the people who come into our office with bedbug issues are afraid of retaliation," said Ted Gullicksen, head of the San Francisco Tenants Union. "They don’t want to tell their landlords because they don’t want to lose their apartments or get fined."

But in most cases, they’re wrong. City health codes specify that rental properties be free of "any public nuisance," a category that includes bedbugs. Because my girlfriend and I didn’t know that at the time, we worried that we’d somehow be blamed for the infestation.

When we found our nest, we did what most tenants fearing eviction and/or more bills would do. We tried to handle the problem on our own, turning to family and the Internet for advice. Folk remedies soon poured in and we tried them all. We threw out excess clothing, sprayed our bedroom with cedar oil, steam-cleaned our carpet, and then sprinkled diatomaceous earth, an organic powder that kills insects, into every nook and cranny we could find. Then we started sleeping on the couch to wait for the bugs in our bedroom to die. But after four days, the unthinkable happened: more bites.

Potter said it’s a common problem because bedbugs respond to store-bought pesticides by scattering into walls, often showing up a few days later in other rooms or units. "What’s worse," Potter added, "is that there’s nothing saying they can’t be reintroduced even after you’ve invested in professional treatment. And, depending on the size of the problem, that can cost more than $10,000." Indeed, the only method of eradication that most pest control companies, including Pestec, guarantee these days is heat treatment, which necessitates the use of expensive technology and requires multiple follow-ups to ensure success. Plus, it’s not cheap.

When my girlfriend and I realized that our problem wasn’t going to magically disappear, we looked into the cost of treatment and freaked out. We were prepared to pay a couple hundred bucks, but the quotes we got were crazy — thousands of dollars for two rooms. We’re not broke, but forking out that kind of money would hobble us. And besides, by then we were getting scared. What if our landlord found out we’d had bugs for weeks? Could our decision to go it alone be used against us? Could it be grounds for eviction?

We didn’t want to find out and, at that point, we didn’t understand how difficult bedbug eradication could be. So we decided to repeat home treatment and simply hoped for the best. The result? It seems to have worked. My girlfriend has been bite-free for over a month and we haven’t seen a bedbug since July.

But now I’m wondering if we just dug ourselves a deeper hole. I mean, up until about two weeks ago when I started doing heavy research for this article, we thought we were in the clear. That’s why we never reported the problem (which is another reason I decided to write this under a pseudonym). But now that I’m painfully aware of how resilient these fuckers are, I’m wondering if we made the right choice. Still, the thought of coming out with this now fills me with dread. Despite what the Tenant’s Union says, I just can’t imagine getting out of this without some sort of fine. And even if money isn’t an issue, I don’t want to get on my landlord’s bad side. But what now? Should we just move? And what about the tenants who follow us?

It’s probably not the most responsible choice, but this line of thinking is common among first time bedbug sufferers — something my girlfriend and I learned on Yelp.com’s local message boards. Despite all the coverage the bedbug resurgence has gotten in recent years, people on Yelp (a.k.a. everybody you know) seem to be in the dark when it comes to tenants’ rights and responsibilities, with many posters opting for temporary solutions to avoid the possibility of financial penalties.

The most revealing post to date comes from a Yelper named JU who got bedbugs in early August and decided to handle matters on his own. "I know I’m moving out in four months … I’m just trying to make it more livable until then," he wrote. Which raises the question: what about landlords? If a tenant neglects to blow the whistle on a blossoming infestation, can the property manager or building owner charge that tenant for treatment? Can JU be held responsible if his bugs move into neighboring units? Were my girlfriend and I right to think we might get evicted or fined for negligence? Maybe.

"The bedbug issue is complicated and it really boils down to cooperation," said Janna New, director of San Francisco Apartment Association. "If the problem is eradicated and then reoccurs due to a tenant’s negligence or refusal to abandon risky behavior, then the cost of remediation could be negotiable. And evictions could occur."

New says she hasn’t heard of anyone getting evicted for harboring bedbugs, but adds that it’s important for tenants to report infestations immediately because if they ignore the problem, their entire building could quickly become infested. "It’s like the flu," she said. "If you get sick, you talk to your doctor. You should do the same thing with your landlord. Teamwork is the only way to get rid of bedbugs."

That’s something I wish I knew a couple months ago and something Tiffinnie McEntire, a 43 year-old acupuncturist, intuited when she noticed bugs in her Cathedral Hill apartment in 2006. Rather than waste time with store-bought insecticides, she immediately called her landlord, who responded by sending an exterminator. When that didn’t work, he sent anotherm and another, until McEntire and the rest of his tenants felt safe. "It was a pain in the butt," McEntire said. "But in the end, we were all happy."

That’s how an infestation should be solved, and that’s probably how it’ll go down if you report one as soon as you notice it. Both the Tenant’s Union and the Apartment Association agree that the burden of eradication usually falls on the landlords. So if you find bugs, your best mode of action is to report the problem as soon as possible. And if you happen to be an apartment or hotel owner, you should do frequent checks and respond to reports immediately. It might cost thousands of dollars, but it could save you from a lawsuit or prolonged infestation.

THE FINAL STAGE: ACCEPTANCE


So what does it mean to live in an infested city, in an infested nation and world? Well, for one, it means that we all have some lifestyle changes to make. For Njon Weinroth, an out-of-work software salesman whose 14th floor condo has been infested for six months, that has meant staying away from friends and developing an amicable relationship with the little monsters. People without bedbugs can obviously skip this step, but Weinroth can’t afford professional treatment at the moment and feels like he has no other choice.

"I do what I can to control them, but I still kill at least two a night," he said. "When I squish ’em, my blood comes out. It’s gross and that’s really been the hardest part — overcoming the stigma." And that’s something everyone — my girlfriend and I included — need to do if we ever hope to get this problem under control. We have to accept that the only thing bedbugs care about is blood and that they will suck it from a bum as quickly as a movie star (just ask actress Mary Louise Parker from "Weeds," who recently had a bedbug scare in her home). Other than that, specialists recommend being wary of buying used clothing and furniture and avoiding clutter.

With that out of the way, we need to start talking about the problem so that first time bedbug sufferers like my girlfriend and I won’t feel so helpless and ashamed when their bodies and beds become infested and, more important, so they will report bedbug activity before it gets out of hand.

Last, we have to come to grips with how rampant this epidemic is. "I don’t want to be the one tooting the horn saying it’s doomsday and that bed bugs are falling from the sky," Agurto said. "But I can’t think of a person alive who doesn’t know someone — or at least know of someone — who has had a problem." But don’t take it from him alone. If you really want nightmares, take a look the Bedbug Registry (www.bedbugregistry.com).

Started in 2006 by a computer programmer living in San Francisco, the Bedbug Registry is an anonymous record of bedbug activity across North America. It has maps tracking the spread of infestations and a search engine that allows you to see how close the creatures are crawling toward your house, hotel, or workplace (36 reports within two miles of Guardian headquarters — yikes!).

Maciej Ceglowski got the idea for the service when he found bumps on his body and dying bugs in the coffeepot at a San Francisco motel. "I reported the problem and got a resigned shrug from the front desk," Ceglowski said. Then he researched the issue and realized that because it’s so hard to get rid of bedbugs, it would not be in a hotel owner or landlord’s interest to publicize an infestation. "I started the site because I thought it would be a good way to fight back against bedbugs."

But is that even possible? With bedbug activity steadily rising in all corners of the world, a simple solution seems doubtful. Which raises another question: how soon before we all have bedbugs?

"Well, that’s hard to answer," Potter said. "But there’s absolutely no reason to think that our problem is going to get better or go away. We’re in for a real struggle with this critter."
Great. What the hell am I supposed to do now? Under normal circumstances, I would have stopped worrying about these bloodsuckers after a week of not seeing them in my apartment. But now that I’ve done all this research, my girlfriend and I are faced with another tough decision: do we tell our landlord or do we just hope our last home treatment actually worked?
We’re still thinking about it.