By ZACHARY GELNAW-RUBIN
Enid Farber had suffered before from occasional spells of what she calls “night itching.” But the most recent itching would not go away, no matter what sprays, creams and lotions she used. It made her anxious, as did the “weird stains” she noticed on her sheets when she woke up in her Hell’s Kitchen apartment.
A friend who lives in Jersey City had been infested with bedbugs, and she recalls hearing his story: “I was like ‘What? Bedbugs?’ I was like everyone else: all I knew about bedbugs was ‘Don’t let the bedbugs bite.’” She didn’t realize the gravity of his situation, nor did she think that those very bugs could be the cause of her “night itching.”
Then she noticed a few newspaper stories about the intensifying bedbug epidemic, but still she didn’t give herself the diagnosis. “At that point,” she says, “it was total denial.”
Farber, a freelance photographer, came home late at night last December after shooting a gig at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Heading for bed, she saw something crawling across the sheets. She turned on the light, and that’s when it dawned on her. She had the bugs.
“It was panic,” she says. “It was just total panic.” That night she slept on the couch.
That was a Friday night. By Sunday, she says, after a weekend of research, “I was an expert.” She learned that the stains on her sheets were her blood, left behind from a bedbug’s meal. Among many other things, she found out that these bugs are next to impossible to get rid of.
Farber is just one case among the swelling ranks of bedbug infestees in New York City. The number of victims is difficult to determine. There were 9,213 complaints to the city’s 311 phone line over the last fiscal year, but experts have no conclusive estimate of how many New Yorkers are afflicted by bedbugs.
Renee Corea, the founder of New York vs. Bedbugs, a non-profit policy advocacy group, says that the number of 311 complaints grossly understates the scale of the bedbug infestation. Most people probably do not report the problem to the city, she says. “It’s a special person who calls 311,” she explains. “It’s someone who believes the city can help them, or who is at their wit’s end. Most people who have an uncooperative landlord, they’ve already given up, they’re not even calling 311, they’re just moving out.”
Though the magnitude of the problem cannot be quantified yet, one thing is certain: The bugs are here in New York City, as well as in other urban areas, and they are wreaking considerable havoc upon thousands of lives.
Corea stresses the importance of educating the public about the existence of bedbugs, the devastation they can cause in anyone’s life, how to avoid an infestation, and what to do if you have one. According to her, ignorance is the first hurdle to jump in quelling the plague.
* * *
Dorian Shorts, now a self-proclaimed bedbug survivor, was ignorant at first, and was surely devastated.
He, his boyfriend Tristan Fuge and another roommate were living with bedbugs in their Bushwick apartment for months before they finally realized (or admitted) what was causing a persistent rash on Fuge’s leg. It started out itchy and red and air jordan 3 eventually swelled up and became “purplish-bruisy,” as Shorts put it. Like Farber, they noticed the tell-tale brownish spots on their sheets, but did not suspect that the spots were actually their blood.
Inexperienced with bedbugs, the three roommates acted slowly. Shorts wanted to exterminate immediately. Fuge thought maybe they would just go away. Having dealt with roaches and other bugs in the past, they decided to be extra vigilant about cleanliness. Don’t leave any food out, they thought, and close the window screens. “Clearly bedbugs have nothing to do with cleanliness,” Shorts says in hindsight. “They want your blood.”
Before the city can educate people on what to do, it must learn what to do itself, which is no easy task. Enter Gale Brewer, City Council member from the Upper West Side. In 2006 she began to receive numerous calls from her constituents with complaints about bedbugs. Brewer was astonished. “I didn’t even know they existed,” she said.
After three years collecting information and wrangling with city agencies, she finally got some legislation passed (and earned the title “bedbug queen” from a fellow council member). A measure Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law on March 18 mandates the creation of a bedbug task force to do research and recommend further action within nine months.
Brewer is straightforward about the lack of information about the bugs. “I really don’t know anything,” she says. “I have education but I’m not the expert by any means. And it turns out nobody is, is what I’m learning.”
At a hearing in City Hall on Feb. 24, entomologists, exterminators, lawyers, community activists, mattress industry representatives and bedbug victims offered no consensus, agreeing only that further study of the problem was needed.
The problem is indeed mind-boggling. Even the entomologists were unable to agree on many points, to say nothing of the pest control operators. “Every exterminator thinks every other exterminator is terrible,” Brewer remarks. “I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong.” The task force, she says, has been mandated to try to figure that out.
* * *
Enid Farber’s apartment is neat and tidy, but it wasn’t always. To prepare for their first of many bedbug exterminations, she and her husband had to confront their clutter. They threw out an enormous amount of possessions: books, personal papers and documents, various keepsakes that filled up their two-bedroom apartment. At first she tried to carefully cull her belongings. But eventually, overwhelmed by the project, she began trashing everything without looking, just to get it over with.
Now her apartment is sparsely furnished. The walls are still lined with her framed prints of such musicians as Tony Bennett, Carlos Santana and Fela Kuti. But there is no more bed frame, no chairs, no curtains. Their belongings that survived the purge, including her husband’s bicycle collection, the greater part of their wardrobe, and box-loads of various personal items, have been moved into a storage room, which is eating into their meager finances.
Her husband sleeps on a pad on the floor in their bedroom, which they call “ground zero” because it’s where the bedbug infestation seems to have originated. Farber herself sleeps on an air mattress in the living room next to the couch she is preparing to put on the curb. She still gets bitten.
The sleeplessness, anxiety, and ceaseless itching are excruciating to bear, not to mention the financial burden. But the hardest part, Farber says, is the loss of a sense of home. “I need to come home and get that sense of harmony,” she says. But the bugs took that away. “Your foundation is completely destroyed, and your life is turned upside-down, topsy-turvy.”
Aside from insomnia, financial distress and an uprooted home-life, many bedbug victims complain of a social stigma. An infestation can cause a rift in marriages and a loss of friends. Once infested, you cannot in good faith invite anyone over to your tainted residence. And if your friends find out, they may not invite you to theirs.
Some take to sleeping pills to calm the nerves and get some rest; others take to alcohol. And since many fumigations and chemicals may kill the live bugs but leave the eggs unharmed, bedbugs are known to resurge after a month or two of absence. So even if they are in fact eradicated, the victim is often left with a lingering paranoia that it’s not over yet.
Dorian Shorts felt the stigma full force. “Having bedbugs is like having herpes,” he says. “It’s disgusting and gross.”
He told very few people about his infestation. “I didn’t want to be a pariah.”
As the bugs in his apartment grew in number and thirst the distraught roommates called in an exterminator. But the bugs did not abate.
And so they ransacked the apartment to find the little bloodsuckers, which were in cracks, under moldings, behind posters. “We opened up the mattress, it was a futon,” Shorts says with a shudder and a groan. “It was just teeming in there.”
The exterminator visited three times in four or five months. All the while, Shorts was finding the bugs in his clothes while at work or out shopping, and in his nightmares. “I would wake up constantly in the middle of the night, feeling things crawl over me, whether or not they were actually real or imagined,” he says.
After the third extermination, they started to recede. Nobody seemed to be getting bitten. But they still saw a bug every once in a while. They weren’t gone.
When the lease expired, the roommates fled. They never reported their bedbug infestation to the city.
Shorts and Fuge moved in with two other friends in a different apartment, still in Bushwick. Before moving, they laundered all their clothes in hot water, sealed them in plastic bags, and sprayed their belongings with insecticide. Once they moved in, they continued to live out of one garbage bag full of clothes for months. “You can’t be overly cautious with these things,” he says.
Within a month, their new roommates began to complain about getting bitten at night””somehow, the bugs had moved in with them. “It was horror,” says Shorts. “I was so excited to move into a place that didn’t have bugs.”
But this time, they were prepared. Rather than let them multiply for months and months, they nipped them in the bud with a thorough self-extermination, and they have been bug-free ever since.
Still, Shorts is haunted. “I still feel ill at ease. If I see a little speck on my bed, I always inspect it,” he says. “I have never had a worse experience in my life, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
* * *
The oft-printed refrain about the bedbug scourge of recent years is that the pests were once a major problem in New York and other urban areas, but were almost eradicated by the pesticides known as DDTs. But, the thinking goes, with the prohibition of DDTs in 1972 and the increase in international travel, the bugs are back. The National Pest Management Association, an organization of pest control operators, offers this same explanation on its website.
According to the group, the number of complaints about bedbugs increased 71 percent nationwide from 2000 to 2005. But since it has been 17 years since DDTs were outlawed, that doesn’t explain the spike.
“The bedbug, like many other animals, is cyclical,” Greg Baumann, vice-president and resident scientist for the organization, said in a telephone interview. He concedes that the explosion of infestations is not fully understood.
Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an entomologist at Cornell University who has spent 10 years working with the New York State interior pest management program, says that while scientists may have an understanding of bedbugs biologically, they don’t understand them ecologically.
“There’s 40 years of missing research,” she says. Because they had all but vanished for so many decades, little has been learned about how bedbugs behave.
According to Gangloff-Kaufmann, bedbug research has so far been underfunded because bedbugs are not known to spread disease. And it is just that line that the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has taken until recently to pass the bedbug problem off to other agencies such as the department of Housing Preservation and Development.
When she first set out to tackle the bedbug issue, Council member Brewer had little support from the the city Health Department, or any other agency. “Long story short,” she said in an interview, “we met with the city agencies and they did nothing.”
Brewer says Health Department officials told her it was not a health issue. She tried to convince the health commissioner otherwise, she says, to no avail. “I no longer will argue with him,” she says. “He does not believe it, and I don’t think that he ever will.” The health department did not respond to requests for comment.
But in the opinion of Gangloff-Kaufmann and other experts, a bedbug infestation certainly has adverse affects on one’s “mental hygiene,” part of the Health Department’s portfolio. It interrupts sleep, she says, and can cause severe anxiety.
“It creates a tremendous amount of stress,” says Baumann. “The psychological effect cannot be quantified … It is a serious problem and should not be discounted.”
Corea of New York vs. Bedbugs says there has been “a deep institutional reluctance” to take action. “It’s a kind of hand-wringing that’s useless,” she says. “Are bedbugs a public health problem? Obviously they are! They don’t understand the truly deleterious impact that they’re having on our society.”
Brewer has little doubt. “I’m not a doctor,” she says, “but I do know it’s a mental health issue. You get very upset. Most people freak out, and I don’t blame them.”
Adding to the already overwhelming anxiety of an infestation is the feeling of isolation and helplessness. “There’s nowhere to ask for help,” Enid Farber says. “There’s no solution.”
Her friend in Jersey City had been lucky: the building management took charge, moved everyone out, suspended tenants’ rent obligations, paid for their interim dwellings, and “went nuclear” on the whole building all at once and was victorious.
Farber’s situation seemed hopeless in contrast. Her landlord largely avoided the issue. Her neighbors were “slackers” who didn’t want to even think about her problem, let alone take action to deal with it. Tenant meetings she organized went unattended. She even wrote a letter and distributed it to all the other units in the building, warning her neighbors: “If they’re in my apartment, they’re going to be in yours.” But she could not get anyone to cooperate.
Six months and many exterminations later, she is still getting bitten at night, and she is at her wit’s end. She has deep rings beneath her eyes from lack of sleep. “I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” she says. “Not just me, but anyone who’s going through this. You can’t win.”
Brewer hopes the task force mandated by her legislation will change that. It will have five public members appointed by Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan), among them at least one entomologist and one pest control specialist. These five will be joined by representatives of the relevant city agencies, which have been forced into cooperative action by the new law.
The team is yet to be appointed. Once the roster is full, the panel will set out to tackle the issue.
Corea has a few suggestions. She says that it is critical that infestations be identified as early as possible and stamped out before they rage out of control. “A lot of the time, people are arguing with their landlords for three weeks about who’s going to pay for this problem. And during that time, the problem is growing,” she says. “There’s no point in arguing. You have to get them out. It doesn’t matter who brought them in or how they came in.”
Complicating the issue, she notes, is that the complainant often is not the original source of the infestation, and that all the neighbors must be notified and their apartments inspected and treated. Much cooperation is required to eradicate the bugs, and, as Farber can testify, that may be nearly impossible to achieve.
Corea says that further legislation is needed to open the doors of neighbors who are not readily compliant. “There has to be a rational process whereby the landlord has rights of access to that apartment,” she says. “Tenants are known to refuse, people who are hoarders, people who don’t want to let anyone in … Those cases are very, very difficult.”
The proper methods of extermination, the right mattress covers, how to dispose of furniture, how to deal with uncooperative landlords and neighbors all need to be studied by the task force, Brewer says. “And legislation will come after that, which I thought was a good way because we don’t know really what we’re doing.”
Editor’s note: This story initially ran on NYCityWatch.org on May 22, 2009.
Photo: Enid Farber.