Bed bugs a creeping fear for residents, landlords
Updated Mon. Nov. 19 2007 12:24 PM ET
Sandie Benitah, CTV.ca News
There's a bed bug epidemic of sorts in big cities across Canada. Records and statistics are not kept but exterminators and public health offices say in the last seven years, they've seen a surge in complaints about bed bugs.
"About 85 per cent of our technicians now continually deal with bed bugs," Dusana Bondy, a spokesperson for Abell Pest Control in Toronto told CTV.ca. "We see them in any transit destination, the Niagara belt, Toronto, Vancouver - pretty much in every city across the country."
In fact, it's been about 30 years since bed bugs have caused such a frenzy. They were practically eradicated from North America as a result of mass treatments using older types of insecticide such as DDT. However, DDT is now considered to be highly toxic and therefore, has been banned from use.
This past week in Toronto, bed bugs were a hot topic of discussion. On Wednesday, industry professionals met in a Mississauga hotel conference room to discuss the problem.
When it comes to eliminating the problem, exterminators face several challenges.
For starters, the pesticides they have been using no longer seem as effective as it appears the insects are a new breed of bed bugs. But more so, exterminators blame the problem on three factors:
* Increased human travel
* Improved treatment methods that specifically target other insect pests
* Lack of public awareness
The solution is an expensive one for homeowners, landlords and hotel management, said Dr. Stephen Kells, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota who spoke at the seminar.
He said the only way to get rid of the problem is by using several different methods of extermination, plus constant follow-ups.
"If you miss a spot, there's your infestation -- it's going to continue," he told the crowd. "Offer to do inspections because if you just rely on complaints, you're constantly behind the ball.
"Customers have to realize if you're constantly chasing a problem, you're never going to get rid of it."
Lawson said she was quoted about $1,800 for her house but that doesn't include any following check-ups. She also said it would cost her extra if she wanted them to put back the baseboards, sockets and other stuff they dismantled to get at the problem.
Nonetheless, the price isn't so much a factor for Lawson who at this point, is ready to pay whatever it takes to get rid of the problem.
"The problem is, nobody will guarantee their work," she said, her voice rising with exasperation. "I don't know if they're just trying to get more money or what."
At the seminar, several exterminators asked about guarantees and acknowledged that it was becoming a big problem with their customers.
But because of the behaviour of the bed bug, guaranteeing complete extermination is practically impossible.
Bed bugs can hide anywhere. They are as thin as a credit card, though they swell up considerably after a blood meal.
Exterminators are trained to look for signs of their existence, such as their eggs or feces, but the problem is there isn't a treatment that will prevent a new case of infestation.
Bed bug behaviour
Bed bugs usually hide in the cracks of walls, electrical outlets and the folds of mattresses, but they can also move to other parts of the house.
The problem is when they crawl into knapsacks, luggage or clothes. People bring these items along with them whenever they leave the house.
This means that if a person with a bed bug infestation in their house goes to work on public transit and sets their knapsack down on the empty seat next to them, bed bugs can then latch on to the empty seat. When the next passenger comes along and sits on that seat, bed bugs can latch onto their clothes and eventually be brought inside the unsuspecting victim's home.
The problem is associated with people who travel, or move around a lot. Bed bug cases are most prevalent in rooming houses, homeless shelters, hostels and dorm rooms.
They are also a problem with people who pick up second-hand merchandise. A lot of the time, people with an infestation will throw out their mattress and other infested furniture but someone will drive by and think they are looking at great finds. They'll pick it up and bring the goods -- and the infestation -- home with them.
However, Lawson doesn't fit into any of those categories. She and her family live in a well-to-do neighbourhood north of Toronto. She has a cleaning lady come in once a week to clean her house and she doesn't rent any part of her house to strangers or pick up anyone else's garbage.
She does have a daughter who loves to travel and she believes that's where she could have gotten them.
Kells said there's no way any exterminator can guarantee their work because her daughter might bring in a new case next time she embarks on another adventure.
"Exterminators can guarantee the work from a performance standpoint but can't guarantee they won't come back because if there are people there, bed bugs are likely to feed," he said.
"It depends on how many bed bugs there are but the problem is you never know that," chimed in an industry professional sitting in the audience. "If you think you're going to be free forever, it's a pipe dream."
This is what exterminators say is the best they can do.
* Inspect everything once, moving "clean" furniture to uninfested area
* Use non-chemical treatments such as a vacuum cleaner and steam
* Train staff/tenant/homeowner of preventative measures such as mattress covers
* Apply chemical control
* Inspect neighbouring apartments, rooms because bed bugs spread easily
* More follow-ups are crucial
At this point, bed bugs are not considered a health hazard, nor will it be because as of yet, there is no evidence that it transmits diseases from one person to the next.
A litigious problem
An American agency, the National Pest Management Association, has reported a 71 per cent increase in bed bug related calls in the United States from 2000 to 2005.
In the U.S., the bed bug infestation is so rampant that there are lawyers who specialize in bed bug litigation.
Many lawsuits have been brought against American hotels and building landlords with punitive damages reaching millions of dollars in some cases. Laws dealing with the issue have been passed or are pending legislation in Hawaii, Boston and San Francisco.
Timothy Wenk, a New York City lawyer specializing in bed bug litigation, was also a guest speaker at the seminar for industry professionals.
He recounted several cases in New York where the courts ruled in favour of the tenants and ordered landlords to effectively deal with the situation at their own cost.
In one case, a woman sued a Catskills, New York resort, claiming she suffered over 500 bed bug bites during her stay in July, 2005. The case is still pending, but the woman is suing the resort for $20 million, claiming that her "body and mind were scarred."
In 2003, a man sued New York City's Helmsley Park Lane Hotes, owned by the late, infamous Leona Helmsley. The case settled a year later for $150,000.
Wenk said in Canada, the laws vary from province to province but because the resurgence of bed bugs is fairly new, there isn't much legislation on who is responsible for what.
"A lot of the time, the case rests upon proving who brought the bed bugs in the first place," he said. "As you can imagine, that's pretty much impossible to prove."
Wenk said in Canada, there are no reported personal injury cases, mostly because many complaints get settled before lawsuits are filed.
Quick facts about bed bugs
* They hit under sensory nerves so that people can't feel them crawling on their skin
* They administer a type of anesthetic that relaxes the blood flow, allowing them to suck more freely
* Once they're fed, they're no longer attracted to heat and want to move away from the body as fast as possible
* They can live about a year without feeding
* Bed bugs will move from their hiding place once they're disturbed
Signs bed bugs might be infesting your home:
* Dark blood spots on sheets and bedding
* Smears on mattresses or nearby areas
* Find welts on your body lined up in a row
* Welts swell to about the size of a quarter