For the last nine years, Susan Henry has worked at the First United Church Mission, helping people in the Downtown Eastside with everything from housing issues to welfare problems. Currently she's on a mission of an altogether different sort: getting the word out about bedbugs.
The blood-sucking insects were commonplace in homes until the 1950s, when the widespread use of DDT effectively wiped them out. But the last few years have seen a resurgence: the bedbugs are back, and they're biting.
“Two or three years ago, we began to see clients complaining of bites,” Henry tells the Straight on the line from the church. “People get really freaked out whenever they get bedbugs. They're so horrified and shocked they start throwing things out immediately: clothes, sofas, mattresses....People can be so psychologically upset if they've been bitten; they're obsessed and fearful or they can't sleep. Would you want to get into bed knowing you're going to be bitten?”
According to the provincial Ministry of Health, reported cases of bedbugs in urban areas in southwestern B.C. increased by 600 percent from 2003 to 2005.
Although Henry's experience with the tiny pests has been in Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood, bedbugs are by no means limited either to low-income areas or unsanitary homes. Rather, they've been known to stalk even five-star hotels all over the world. A November 2005 story in the New York Times pointed to bedbugs in a Park Avenue duplex, as well as in hospital maternity wards, private schools, and a plastic surgeon's waiting room.
“There's no link whatsoever with uncleanliness,” says Brigitte Baumann, manager of health protection at Vancouver Coastal Health. “It's just an unfortunate, unpleasant circumstance.”
Baumann agrees that bedbugs appear to be on the rise.
“People are travelling more and more, and it's very easy to pick up bedbugs in your suitcase or in your luggage” and then bring them home with you or leave them in the next hotel you visit, she tells the Straight by phone. “Be careful of secondhand clothing, luggage, or purses,” she adds. That retro couch you find on the sidewalk could be covered in them. Plus, new pesticides are insect-specific””one spray doesn't kill all””and bedbugs are resistant to many types.
The problem is getting so severe, in fact, that it's not just nonprofit organizations taking notice. The City of Vancouver has launched a bedbug pilot project and has also approached the Union of B.C. Municipalities to get the support of the provincial government in convening a bedbug task force. If the UBCM adopts the city's resolution at its annual conference in October, the advocacy organization will go to the Ministry of Health and request financial resources to control bedbugs, research the impact of bedbug bites on people with compromised immune systems, and launch a public-education campaign. And Henry is taking information to the streets: she'll be out on the corner of Granville and Georgia streets periodically throughout August to hand out bedbug brochures.
Céline Mauboulíƒ ¨s, a planner in the City of Vancouver's Housing Centre, is on the steering committee of the bedbug pilot project, which involves Downtown Eastside community groups, hotel owners, tenants, and others. She says it takes a lot of cooperation to conquer the insects.
“They're difficult little pests to deal with, particularly in SROs [single-room-occupancy hotels],” Mauboulíƒ ¨s says in a phone interview. “You have to do multiple sprays; you need the assistance of tenants to launder all of their belongings...and you have to give the room a really good cleaning. Bedbugs hide easily, and in SROs there are a lot of older fixtures, cracks for them to get into....We need to educate tenants and owners on how to identify them.”
Bedbugs are brown, flattened parasites about four to five millimetres long that feed on the blood of humans, birds, dogs, cats, and other mammals. According to Vancouver Coastal Health, they are extremely resilient: adults can survive for more than a year without feeding. Most active in warm weather, they come out to feed at night and hide during the day.
At the start of an infestation, bedbugs can be found in the seams and folds of mattresses and bed covers. Then they spread to cracks and crevices of box springs and bed frames before heading to baseboards, window and door casings, picture frames, mouldings, loosened wallpaper, cracks in plaster and partitions, furniture, electrical sockets, phones, radios, TVs, toys, stuffed animals, and smoke detectors.
Signs of bedbugs include black or red spots (fecal matter or blood) on sheets, pillows, and mattresses.
Some people don't have any reaction to bites, while others get an itchy welt or localized swelling. However, secondary infections can develop if victims scratch.
The critters don't transmit disease. But this could explain why more isn't being done to eliminate them, Henry says.
“This isn't like the West Nile virus,” she notes. “They don't cause terrible illness, and they don't cause big crop devastation. If they became a big problem in the tourism industry, then more people might say, 'Why are we not doing more about this?'
“Bedbugs are easier to get rid of if you have a lot of money, and you have a good pesticide company, and you can do all the work involved,” Henry adds. “It's difficult in a multi-unit apartment building. It [the treatment] has to be safe, effective, affordable, and efficient.”
The Tenants Rights Action Coalition notes on its Web site that landlords are responsible for treating bedbug infestations. A Vancouver bylaw stipulates that only people trained and certified in pesticide use are allowed to spray in a multiple dwelling.
Stephen A. Kells, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota who has written a manual of procedures for Canadian pest-control companies, calls the parasite “the pest of the 21st century” .
In 2003, a U.S. couple successfully sued Accor Economy Lodging, the operator of the Motel 6 chain, for US$186,000 in punitive damages after being bitten by bedbugs. The motel continued renting rooms””including the one that the couple stayed in””that had been designated as unfit because of a long-standing infestation.