It was early in 2008 when a young New York woman, Berna Ziviec, discovered tiny red welts on her skin. Coming from a stolid middle class household, where it was often said that “cleanliness was next to Godliness,” Berna was puzzled but at first dismissed the itching as caused by mosquito bites.
Not much later, Berna found that an upstairs tenant family at the Brooklyn brownstone was having a similar problem. It was about that time that the female adult in the upstairs apartment told Berna that she suspected bedbugs.
It didn’t make sense, Berna thought; both apartments were kept in immaculate condition. But this was about the time news of a bedbug epidemic was beginning to sweep New York City. To her horror, Berna’s internet search returned numerous sites which described infestations elsewhere in the city.
The problems multiplied as swiftly as the bedbugs. Berna says that she and the upstairs tenants began to make inquiries to exterminators. They also notified the landlord, who at first insisted that the apartment had been thoroughly cleaned before it was rented. The landlord stonewalled while the women arranged for the exterminators. It was a matter of utmost urgency. They would pay out of pocket and settle with the landlord later.
The tenants of both apartments researched the issue thoroughly and then hired a reputable exterminating company. Initially balking, the landlord covered the costs paid out for the first exterminating effort. What no one except the upstairs tenant knew was that the baby’s mother had prohibited the exterminators from treating the baby’s tiny room. The bugs eventually made their way back into the main body of the apartment and downstairs to the first floor apartment.
People cringed at the thought and tended to believe bedbug infestations were a problem only with “dirty people.” But soon, newspapers carried stories about how Bill Clinton’s Harlem offices needed fumigation for bedbug infestation. Other stories mentioned a Manhattan Victoria’s Secret store being infected, and the AMC movie theatres in Times Square. Residents of the Upper East and West Sides, bordering central park, are reported (New York Times Story: What Spreads Faster than Bedbugs: Stigma) to have hid their infestations, ordering exterminators to park trucks far away from their buildings and to wear regular clothing rather than conspicuous uniforms. Currently, the stories are numerous and spreading as fast as the bedbugs. And since the Berna mentioned above is the daughter of a good friend, I thought it would be interesting to hear of her real life experience with the dreaded bloodsucking insect vampires:
Me: So what the biggest problem you faced with your infestation?
Berna: It is extremely costly to have a proper extermination done. Because there is now a bedbug epidemic in New York City, many pest exterminators claim to be able to exterminate bed bugs, when they really are not equipped to do so.
Me: So what should people do if they fear being infested?
Berna: Research thoroughly. There are many peoplewho want to make money off the epidemic. Most exterminators have not dealt with bedbugs before, and they either do not realize or do not care that bed bugs are insusceptible to typical pesticides…
Me: Why do you suppose New York City is so heavily hit?
Berna: New York City is a popular tourist destination for Americans and for foreign travelers. People unknowingly bring the insects with them to the city in their possessions. DDT, which used to kill any migrating bed bugs, can no longer legally be used.
Me: Until recently, I’d never given a thought to bedbugs. Why are they spreading so quickly?
Berna: Most of the time tenants end up leaving their apartments in an attempt to ecape the infestation, and landlords usually do not know or do not tell the next incoming resident that there are still bedbugs in the apartment. Furthermore, people usually move and take their belongings with them without treating ALL household items. The bedbugs merely “hitch” a ride to the new apartment.
Me: How did you resolve the problem in your own case?
Berna: When I had a “proper” extermination done by a real expert, I had to put all of my household items (excepts for bathroom and kitchen items) in sealed, thick plastic bags for a month. This suffocates any bedbugs that may be hiding in pillows, drapes, wooden pictures frames, knick-knacks, etc. I also had to bag all of my clothing, only choosing several outfits that I would wear during the course of the month, and continually wash these clothes in hot water, drying them on high heat.
ME: That already sounds like a lot!
Berna: That’s not even half of what you go through.
Carpets and rugs have to be thoroughly vacuumed before being treated. I had to clean the dust in my apartment as much as possible to make the extermination more effective. The less dust, the more effective the treatment is. What is worse is that, even though I did not return to my apartment for five days after it was treated, the poisons still affected my immune system. I wound up getting sick three times in the course of a month following the extermination. However, the only thing worse than getting severe colds three times within one month, is trying to sleep in a bed that you know has had bedbugs in it. You either will not be able to sleep for fear of being bitten or you will become paranoid and feel itchy regardless of whether there are bedbugs in your house or not.
Me: I can’t imagine dealing with all that.
Berna: The worst thing is that, in my case, bedbugs were only found in my roommate’s room. However, the exterminator had to treat the entire apartment. If he had only treated her bedroom, they would have migrated to my room to escape from the poison and to feed on me. So even though I did not have any bedbugs in my bedroom, I had to do all the prep work, pack my things up for one month, do laundry constantly, and I was bitten badly while napping on the couch anyway. I was also paranoid about having guests over, fearing a bedbug could hitch a ride home to a friend’s house. All-in-all, if you are working full time or have a family, you probably do not have the wherewithal to properly handle a bedbug infestation. All around my neighborhood, I see new advertisments popping up for more and more bedbug exterminators. I live in a poorer predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, where entire blocks are infested and people are not ashamed of the problem but rather wish it could be controlled.
I have to admit I was flummoxed by the extent of it, even after reading the New York Times article. I tried unsuccessfully to call the New York City Health Department to see if I could get someone to comment but got stalled in voicemail purgatory. I sent an email note then, asking what the Department was doing to rid the city of this horrific pest problem. As of this writing, I’ve received no reply. I don’t want to jump to conclusions about the New York Department of Health, which has a “helpful” web page devoted to the bedbug invasion, but Berna reflected the frustration that many New York City residents feel:
Berna: In affluent neighborhoods in Manhattan, where the infestations are just as bad, people are more discreet and embarrassed about it, and this secrecy only creates more of a problem because it masks the fact that there is an epidemic and allows people to think that a city-wide course of action is not required since, seemingly, only poor or “ethnic” areas are affected. But of course the truth is that bed bugs do not discriminate between ethnicities, or between rich and poor. They really only care if you have a bed where they can live, and blood coursing through your veins.
Sources: Direct information taken from telephone and email conversations with Berma Ziviec.