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Over the course of 2019, the pest control company Orkin says they mitigated more bedbug infestations in the D.C. region than any other metro area in the country.
Our region has been jumping up and down the rankings for years now. Baltimore has been the top hotbed for bedbugs for the past three years. The home of the Orioles is now sitting in second place, followed by Chicago, Los Angeles, Columbus and New York City.
Orkin’s data is only one snapshot of the bedbug issue in the D.C. area; our region is particularly hospitable to the parasites, and ways to get rid of them range from chemical fumigation to essential oils. The bugs, once functionally eradicated, are increasingly prolific and stubborn housemates.
And they’re especially difficult to get rid of if you don’t know who’s responsible for doing it. D.C. has notoriously vague laws governing whether you or your landlord has to pay for extermination. In many cases, this stalemate leads to an increasingly severe infestation — sometimes to a point that’s unlivable, and even dangerous, for human residents.
Kojo sits down with experts to suss out just why we’re ranked number one for bedbugs, and what hope there might be to fix it.
Produced by Maura Currie
- Brittany Campbell Staff Entomologist, National Pest Management Association; @bellcampbri
- Brianne Nadeau Member, D.C. Council (D-Ward 1); @BrianneKNadeau
- Cate Denny Senior Attorney, D.C. Tenants' Rights Center
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Over the course of 2019, the pest control company Orkin says it mitigated more bedbug infestations in the D.C. region than any other metro area in the country. We have now unseated Baltimore, which held the number one spot for three years, but Orkin's data is just one snapshot of the bedbug issue in the D.C. area. There are many ways to try to get rid of these pests, but it especially is difficult if you don't know who's responsible for doing it.
KOJO NNAMDIHere to discuss why we're ranked number one for bedbugs in this region and whether all hope is lost is Brittany Campbell. She's a staff entomologist for the National Pest Management Association. Brittany Campbell, thank you for joining us.
BRITTANY CAMPBELLThank you, Kojo. I'm delighted to be here.
NNAMDILet's start with this Orkin study. It says that it analyzed the exterminations it did in metro areas across the country. So, this ranking encompasses both the District and surrounding suburbs. What should people take into consideration when looking at the rankings in this particular survey?
CAMPBELLI think it's important to realize that Orkin is only one of the pest control companies in the United States. And we do not have access to that data. It does appear to be the number of treatments that they did in those regions, however, I can't really speak to the methodologies that Orkin used to get that data. However, I do know that bedbugs are very prevalent in the D.C. region.
NNAMDIAre bedbugs more of an issue in suburban environments, or urban ones? Put differently, are we talking about D.C. proper here, or are we also talking about surrounding jurisdictions in the suburbs?
CAMPBELLFrom my personal experience, I don't have any scientific studies to show that data, but I will say that bedbugs are much more prevalent in the city area, compared to the suburbs. And that is really because of the density of people in the area and just the transient communities, so people moving around a lot more, as well as D.C. is a huge tourist attractions, as well.
NNAMDIIs there any data on whether certain neighborhoods' or households' economic status makes it more vulnerable to infestations?
CAMPBELLThere is some data showing that, unfortunately, bedbugs are much more prevalent in low-income communities. And there's several factors that contribute to this. Oftentimes, it is the methodologies. So, tenants and homeowners in those areas don't have the resources to pay for bedbug control. And they also don't have access to many of the products that are more effective for bedbug control.
NNAMDIAre bedbugs just a nuisance, or are they an actual public health risk?
CAMPBELLThat is an excellent question, Kojo. And, so, bedbugs are considered a significant public health risk. And this is recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Environment Protection Agency. And this is primarily because their bites do cause allergic skin reactions.
CAMPBELLHowever, there is other data to suggest that they could potentially be an allergy issue. So, there's actually histamines in their feces that can cause asthma problems in the people who experience infestations, as well as severe psychological issues. People have had anxiety, depression from bedbugs. That is oftentimes not as well studied as other physical ramifications of bedbugs. But I will say that there's currently no studies to show that bedbugs do transmit disease.
NNAMDIHow do these bugs travel? Could they spread via public transit, for example?
CAMPBELLThen cannot spread via public transports, but they will hitchhike on people. So, essentially, if they get into your luggage, into a purse, into a book bag, that is the primary way that they are transported throughout the city, is on human belongings. But once they get inside of a building, they will do something called active disbursal, so where these bedbugs will crawl around on their own and move from one unit to another.
NNAMDII've just read someplace where a five-story apartment building, within 24 hours of its initial bedbug infestation, the entire apartment building was infested. How so rapidly?
CAMPBELLThat is certainly possible. I don't know how many units were in that particular building, but bedbugs do spread very rapidly. There was a study that was done -- it was quite interesting -- at Rutgers University where they took bedbugs, painted them bright green, painted them different colors on their backs, and they released those bedbugs. And they found that within 24 hours, those bedbugs already had moved from the spot where they were released into other apartment units. So, they're moving much more quickly than we ever suspected.
NNAMDIBrittany Campbell, say someone is trying to prevent bedbugs in their home. What kind of environment do bedbugs thrive in?
CAMPBELLSo, I hate to say this, but there is really no 100 percent way to prevent bringing bedbugs in. However, I would encourage the citizens of D.C. to really become diligent when they stay places. So, do bedbug inspections, look for the signs of bedbugs. So, adult bedbugs, many people have the misconception that they are microscopic. They are not. An adult bedbug is about the size of an apple seed, so look for actual live bedbugs. Look for their fecal spots that appear to be dark, almost like ink stains, on bedding. And inspect places where you stay to try to prevent bringing them back home with you.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Cate Denny. Cate Denny is a lawyer with the D.C. Tenants' Rights Center. Thank you for joining us.
CATE DENNYThanks for having me.
NNAMDIPrivate homeowners are obviously on their own with this, but your firm deals with an array of tenants' rights issues. How often do pest infestations come up, more broadly, and how about bedbugs specifically?
DENNYWell, pest infestations come up a lot in our office, so we're helping tenants primarily only in the District of Columbia. It comes up, I guess, among the attorneys in our office probably on a weekly basis. I'd say, though, that bedbugs, it's a little bit less common. I'm not sure exactly why that is, because I do understand that it is a big issue in the region and in the District, in particular.
NNAMDIBrittany Campbell, what is it about bedbugs that makes them so notoriously hard to get rid of?
CAMPBELLSo, bedbugs are extremely cryptic creatures. What that means is is that they hide deep in cracks and crevices. And because of their behavior, it is difficult to find bedbugs. There's also a lot of studies and research to show that bedbugs have developed a lot of resistance to our products, so to our insecticides. So, it's a combination of having a difficult time actually reaching the bedbugs deep hidden in areas in a home, as well as environments that may be more conducive to bedbugs would be those that have a lot of clutter and a lot of hiding places for bedbugs.
NNAMDIBedbugs were almost eradicated from this country not too long ago, though. What happened?
CAMPBELLYeah. So, bedbugs were essentially eradicated in the United States in about the 1940s and 1950s. And this is mostly due to DDT, and then later a product called malathion, and that was really effective. And also the practices. You can imagine EPA back then didn't really have a lot of regulations on the use of those chemicals. So, homeowners applied them liberally throughout their home. I've actually seen advertisements where homeowners were using wallpaper impregnated with DDT in nurseries. So, the liberal use of those insecticides and also the level of effectiveness eradicated bedbugs in the United States.
NNAMDICate Denny, when tenants come to you about an infestation, what legal issue are they usually grappling with?
DENNYA lot of times, it's that they are already -- there's already an infestation, and a lot of times, it's issues with access to the property about what types of things they need to do in order for an extermination to be effective, lost property, because a lot of times they have to throw away all of their things, and trying to figure out who should be responsible for that. And then, you know, whether the landlords are responsible for paying for the exterminations and relocation and other expenses.
NNAMDIAnd, currently, when is it a landlord's responsibility to handle extermination costs?
DENNYSo, that depends on what type of unit the tenant's living in, so whether it's a single-family home, whether it's a multifamily home. Whether there are other units affected in the same building and potentially who brought in the bedbugs, which is often really hard to determine.
DENNYSo, there are certain clear responsibilities for landlords, including if a rental unit, I guess, before it's rented out, the landlord needs to make sure that there's no bedbugs in there at the time of move-in. Landlords must exterminate in multi-family apartment buildings if there's more than one unit affected. And then exterminations must be performed in a manner that's not hazardous to tenants' health. And, other than that, there's certainly a few loopholes and other things that might affect who's responsible.
NNAMDIAnd, apparently, there's a bill in the D.C. Council to try to change those loopholes. Joining us now by phone is Brianne Nadeau. She's a Ward 1 councilmember on the D.C. Council. Councilmember Nadeau, thank you for joining us.
BRIANNE NADEAUSure. Good afternoon.
NNAMDICan you explain, in brief, what would your bedbug bill change in D.C. law?
NADEAUYeah, sure. I mean, the goal here is to stop the spread of bedbugs. And the idea came from a constituent living in a row-house who was dealing with a pretty severe situation where his home was being repeatedly infested by a neighboring property. The bill would provide more information to homeowners and tenants. It provides notice when an adjacent unit or property has been infested. And it also would provide some assistance to those who need help abating. But the idea is that there should be more information out there. Folks should know if they're moving into a unit that's had bedbugs, and if there are bedbugs in a unit near them, currently.
NNAMDIIt seems like this could create more of a problem, maybe a burden for landlords because exterminations can get expensive. Is that a fair characterization?
NADEAUWell, I mean, I think if we have a public health concern, we have to abate it. So, the cost of not treating an outbreak of bedbugs when we find it is a lot more expensive than doing it right away. And, actually, for the landlords who testified in our hearing, I mean, I think they understood that, and they were folks who were on top of it. And I think the concern is, you now, when folks need that abatement and aren't doing it or can't afford it, we don't have the right tools in place, and we also don't have really a regulatory agency that can inspect and step in and identify and regulate this. And so we need to fix that in the law.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad the landlords testified in your hearing, because we asked the Landlords' Association about this issue and we got a statement from them saying, we don't have a comment. So, there. (laugh)
NADEAU(laugh) Yeah, they have some comments on the record that I think will be included when the bill moves forward, so...
NNAMDIAre you confident that the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs can handle the extra responsibilities that your bill imposes on it?
NADEAUOne of the things that we discussed with the director of DCRA in the hearing was what would it take to stand up a program similar to the to the third-party inspection program they have now for housing units, and they did think that might be doable. But, obviously, if they try to bring it in-house, they'd have to hire a lot more people.
NNAMDIAnd did I ask this before? If I did, correct me. What's the latest on where the bill now is?
NADEAUAll right. I have that for you. The bill had a joint hearing with the committee as a whole in the Health Committee in December. And the next step is for both committees to mark them up. And we are hopeful that that's happening soon.
NNAMDIBrianne Nadeau is a member of the D.C. Council, representing Ward 1. Thank you so much for joining us.
NADEAUThanks a lot.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here's Michelle in Reston, Virginia. Michelle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHELLEHi. Thank you for taking my call. I lived in Reston, Virginia, and I had two other roommates. We were all making maybe $2 above minimum wage. We discovered we had bedbugs. And so just to confirm that we had bedbugs, the pest control company charged us $50 just to look and find it. And they were kind enough to waive the fee, just because we weren't made aware of it prior.
MICHELLEAnd then they told us that to eradicate it, it would cost us $2,000. And that was more than our monthly rent. They also told us that we could get the complex to do it, to take care of it, but we'd have to confirm there were other units. But there's a stigma attached to bedbugs, so we couldn't go door to door in our building and be, like, hey, do you have bedbugs? So, we wound up taking care of it ourselves, and like with diatomaceous herbs, we took everything to a laundromat. But all in all it took like about three days. Like, me and the two other girls I lived with had to take three days off work and just tear our home apart to try to get it fixed.
NNAMDIOkay. I know that you're in Virginia, but Cate Denny, would the bill being proposed by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau change how you deal with the legal question of infestations, or help people like Michelle?
DENNYThe current law would possibly help people like Michelle, in the District, anyway. She was talking about the stigma attached to talking to other neighbors and other people in the unit or in the building. And I think that is a real issue, because right now, part of what tenants' rights somewhat depend on whether there are other units that are affected. And if they're not willing to talk to other people and if there is this stigma, then it does, I guess, limit their rights. And so I guess the new law should assist with tenants, at least in the District, because it would just mean that the landlord's responsible, regardless of whether there's other units that are also infested.
NNAMDIBrittany Campbell, is there a problem from a biological standpoint with trying to work out where a bedbug infestation started?
CAMPBELLThere is, and there is no scientific way to really determine who brought the bedbugs in. Bedbugs do not discriminate. Rich people get bedbugs. Poor people get bedbugs. And because of their hitchhiking ability and their behavior of hiding very well, there is no good way to really determine this is the person in this unit that brought bedbugs in, also because they spread quite rapidly, as well.
NNAMDIA lot of people would like to share their experiences. Here's Kathryn in D.C. Kathryn, your turn.
KATHRYNHi. Thank you. I've had bedbugs twice, and it was really an awful experience. So, now, I'm very paranoid and nervous in different experiences and different situations. So, I was hoping to get some clarity to find out where I'm paranoid and where it's realistic. So, one is I just had to check my coat at a museum the other day, and I was nervous, put something in the locker at the museum. Take something off of the street, like if I take a book, I put it in the freezer for several days. How much of this is realistic or how much is dangerous situations?
CAMPBELLYeah, I'm so sorry that you've had to deal with bedbugs twice. I know it is a harrowing experience, and I've heard of many people, after experiencing bedbugs, having similar paranoia that you have. I guess I would just encourage you to realize that bedbugs don't spread disease, however harrowing the experience is, but to remain diligent. Maybe not on quite that level, but if you do travel places, to occasionally inspect your luggage. If you go to a movie theater, you can take a high-powered flashlight, LED flashlight, inspect the coat, but don't change your lifestyle completely for bedbugs.
NNAMDIHere's Sojourner, in Falls Church. Sojourner, your turn.
SOJOURNHi. Yeah, I just want to say that I really love that we're talking about regulating this issue, because my husband and I, right after we got married, the first thing we had to deal with after I moved into his apartment was bedbugs, which was not fun as newlyweds. But we were able to afford eliminating them.
SOJOURNWe got the heat treatment, which got rid of everything completely. The price was based on the square footage of our apartment. And it seems like that's the best way to get rid of bedbugs. But our downstairs neighbors are in a much -- they're in a very different financial situation than we are. And they continue to battle the bedbugs and have not been able to get rid of them. And when they try to reach out for help, there isn't any to be found. And they also have to continually spend money, because they have to go for the cheaper option.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned that, because we're running out of time, and I'd like Brittany Campbell to address this. Your work now focuses on educating exterminators about the bugs they're trying to exterminate. So, let's talk about bedbugs. Are there common methods to get rid of bedbugs that don't work as well as people think they might?
CAMPBELLThere are some common methods. I'll first speak to the things that homeowners try to do on their own. Unfortunately, because bedbugs are so difficult to control, it is a difficult thing to do on your own. A lot of homeowners were going to big box stores and buying what we call fogging bombs and releasing those in their homes. And those are not effective. There are published studies that show that those bombs to not work. A lot of the essential oil products that you can buy online also are pretty ineffective against bedbugs.
CAMPBELLSo, a lot of the products that exterminators have access to are much more effective. And they also have an entire toolbox, so they may use products, but they also may use what we call nonchemical methods: heat, steam, mattress encasement. So, there's a lot of methodologies out there, and there's no one silver bullet, unfortunately.
NNAMDIWe only have about 30 seconds left, but here's Amy in Washington, D.C. Amy, can you tell us what you do in 30 seconds?
AMYYes. I mastered the problem myself just by reading about bedbug behavior. And I observed and waited and watched and even got bitten. And I figured out where they were, which was in the wooden pieces of the IKEA bed that I had. And I found the colony. And I put it all in a plastic bag, took it outside, covered it with...
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have, but thank you very much. Brittany Campbell, Cate Denny, thank you so much for joining us. This conversation about bedbugs was produced by Maura Currie. Today's Maura's last day with us, and we'll miss her sense of humor and her love for all things scientific, including all of her pictures that scare the living daylights out of the rest of us. And our segment about bringing Fannie Lou Hamer's story to the stage was produced by Lauren Markoe.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow on The Politics Hour, Jeff McKay is the new chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. He joins us. Plus, Maryland Delegate and Democratic Majority Leader Eric Luedtke discusses his party's priorities this session, Kirwan Commission funding, and voting access on college campuses. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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