By Gerard Flynn
For more than six decades, Cimex lectularius, a.k.a. the bedbug, was thought to have been eradicated throughout the United States, largely through the successful use of the pesticide DDT.
In recent years, however, mainly due to the cessation of use of such potentially carcinogenic chemicals and cheaper travel, the perennial pest has made a dramatic return.
Statistics from the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development reveal an alarming rise in the number of bedbug complaints from tenants, who describe disturbing incidents of infestations. At the same time, tenants are reporting that landlords are reluctant to do anything about the problem.
“We have seen nearly a fourfold increase in bedbug complaints over the past two years,” said Seth Donlin of H.P.D.
Donlin, who said the recent data is evidence of a “significant” problem, urged tenants to notify the agency and report any landlord who is refusing to meet his legal obligations.
“We encourage people to report potential code violations if their landlord fails to correct the problem,” he said. “It is a landlord’s responsibility to provide housing free of infestations.”
No larger than an apple seed and similar to one in color when fully grown, bedbugs can hide in any crack or small space, from one’s mattress to wooden furniture. They have also been known to nest in alarm clocks and screw tips or bury their eggs deep in carpets or floorboards. After dark, they crawl out.
Bedbugs are attracted by a person’s body heat or by exhaled carbon dioxide. Crawling onto the skin, they insert two strawlike proboscises one for anesthetizing their victims’ flesh so they don’t feel the bite, the other for drawing a nutritious meal of blood.
Laying up to three eggs per day, they can produce anywhere between 300 to 500 per life cycle, each batch requiring a blood meal.
Severe itching follows several days after a bite. People may also find other signs left by bedbugs, including dark spots fecal matter on sheets. There may also be visible skin shedding from a previous nymphal stage; the bugs go through five stages. A sickly, musky odor in a room usually indicates a heavy infestation.
Making it hard to eradicate these pests, they can starve for long periods of time when dinner isn’t always available.
“They can go for many months without a blood meal, which makes eradicating them that much more difficult,” said Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History.
Although not capable of spreading infectious diseases, the bite which resembles a welt can spread secondary infections from the infernal itching that can last for up to a week.
Timothy Wong, director of M & M Environmental, an exterminator on Orchard St., has seen demand for his business soar over the past couple of years, responding to more than 300 calls this year so far, a rise of 33 percent from the previous year.
Wong, who has seen infestations so dense that the critters don’t wait until nightfall to feed, sees education as well as the efforts of professional exterminators as central to ridding the city of the problem. This year he has set aside 15 percent of his company’s budget for distributing literature in Chinese, Korean, Spanish and English, largely targeting the city’s immigrant community.
But it is the spread of the pest through recycled mattresses that Wong says needs to be especially addressed.
“A lot of people are getting bedbugs from refurbished mattresses,” he said. “They see what appears to be a perfectly good mattress on the street and bring it home, or they buy them from furniture stores where they are sold as new, and this is not illegal.
“Or when you go to a store and buy a new mattress, they will pick up your old one and place it in the back of the truck with the new mattress,” he said. “So you can imagine what will happen if one of them is infested.”
He also warned about the exploitative actions of some extermination firms, including fly-by-night operations that start up simply to capitalize on the panic, which is occurring in some neighborhoods.
“There are a lot of scams in the industry,” Wong said. “A lot of victims are paying people without experience, and then there are larger companies who want to milk clients and do 10 treatments when you can take care of this in two visits.”
Residents can use over-the-counter “insect bombs” in their apartments, but only a professional exterminator can really remove bed bugs, exterminators say. Using the bombs only causes the vermin to move next door and doesn’t get bugs that may be hiding in deep cracks, according to exterminators.
Attempts to address the issue of reconditioned mattresses are ongoing. In 2005, Councilmember Gale Brewer, of the Upper West Side, introduced legislation still awaiting mayoral approval to make the sale of reconditioned mattresses illegal.
Brewer calls the problem an “epidemic.” She has convened a citywide task force, bringing together eight agencies, including the Education, Sanitation and Health departments, to raise the alarm about the spread of bedbugs to city schools and hospitals, as well as to address the potential negative impact on the city’s tourist industry that reports of infestations might have.
Despite the minimal health impact bedbugs represent, Brewer said the city must pay greater attention to the psychological impact an infestation can have.
“They are now everywhere, and it is a serious mental health crisis,” she said. “We go to visit tenants and we are petrified; everyone is walking around with their pants rolled up.”
Marina Berino, who shares a loft with a roommate on Canal St., knows all too well the lingering psychological impact a close encounter with bedbugs can bring.
After a visitation in May, it took them two months and thousands of dollars in discarded furniture and exterminator costs to rid themselves of the maddening bugs. But it’s the lasting emotional toll, however, that leaves her terrified at the prospect of their return.
“Besides the financial bite, it was very stressful and time consuming,” she said. “I still go to sleep and scratch myself all night, thinking they are on me.”