Brooklyn Has the Most Bedbugs, and Other Findings From the Mayor's Bed Bug Advisory Board (Q&A)

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You are getting very itchy.
Yesterday, the mayor held a press conference to announce the city's new bedbug plan, a multipronged and rather high-minded-seeming (bedbug information portals? bedbug czars?) approach to a completely physical problem: bedbugs feasting on the blood of the city's fine citizens, fornicating, and doing it again and again -- slowly rapidly taking over our five boroughs without regard for socioeconomics or anything.

Detractors, of course, already abound with regard to the proposed plan, which is big on educating and lighter on KILLING THE GD BUGS, at least overtly. (See Slate's rather funny "New York Will Solve the Bedbug Crisis by Speaking Very Sternly to the Bedbugs").

Today, we spoke to Gil Bloom, one of three mayoral-appointed entomologists on City Hall's Bed Bug Board -- and a fourth-generation pest control specialist -- about the plan and this little infestation situation we've got going. (Did you hear the Time Warner Center is the latest to fall to the scourge?)

Gil, how did you get involved with the Bed Bug Board?
The city was having issues in schools, at call centers, and there was no centralized area in New York to deal with it. There was a degree of dysfunctionality: You had agencies giving out contradictory information. The powers that be chose different people to serve on the board: three entomologists, a community health worker, a bedbug activist. We met from September through March; we were originally supposed to have one meeting a week. But there's no way we would have accomplished what we did with just 6 meetings, so we held additional one-day working meetings. All told, from September to when we submitted our report on April 1, we had 20 full days of meetings.

We did some field interviews, met with the Sanitation Department and the Department of Education, went to various agencies to get as much information as possible. There are two different groups we're trying to serve -- the people of New York, and the city, with its own issues.

What is going on with this bedbug increase? I heard the last year has brought a 63% increase in complaints about them to 311?
Obviously, bedbugs are not only in New York City; internationally, they've have been on the rise for the past 10 to12 years. Originally, the Health Department said this isn't a public health issue [because bedbugs are in private homes]. But now they're showing up in office buildings, shelters. One of the hardest-hit areas are adult protective services and visiting nurse situations.

We've known it was a growing trend, and we found that a lot of the textbook treatments weren't necessarily working. We're in a different environment and bedbugs themselves have evolved. Why they've exploded is still somewhat of a question; there is no one root cause.

What are some of the causes?
One of the big things has to do with pesticide use. We have moved to a single class of pesticides which minimize exposure by using baits, like Combat, but they're species-specific. A cockroach has a chewing mouth part. Bedbugs only feed on blood, they have no interest in bait, and no way to consume it. The same goes for boric acid. It's useless against bedbugs.

It has to do to some extent with immigration as well. Bedbugs are a problem in some parts of the world, and people are coming in and bringing bedbugs with them. This is not a value judgment. Plus you do have travel in itself.

Could a bedbug survive on a plane?
They have an amazing ability to survive. If they've had a blood meal, they can survive from eight months to a year. They can shut down their body and go into hibernation, especially if it's cooler. They're very secretive. They can be anywhere -- on a plane, in a taxi cab or theater. It does make you think and evaluate. I used to love to travel...

Eek, how do you get rid of them?
With the bedbugs we have now, the solution is not strictly chemical, it's just part of the equation. It's also about decluttering. It's not that people are dirty, but you have to launder, get things in the dryer, put mattress encasements on your furniture...Steam has also been a great tool; these are dry steamers, they put out 200 to 300 degrees and are used for disinfecting. It kills them. If you put a steamer along the side of a mattress, it can get what's on the other side. For older people with respirators, and nursery schools, steam works best.

If you get bedbugs and you don't address the problem soon enough -- well, one of the things we've learned is that the elderly are less responsive to bites than the general population, and by the time they pick up on it, you can have significant infestations.

What about prevention? Should you throw away all your stuff?
Clutter doesn't bring them, but when you get a case and you have a clutter condition -- they become serious bedbug reservoirs.

What else should you do?
The hot spot in a hotel room is the headboard, and the box spring in homes. Check behind the headboard, night tables, and the picture on the wall in a hotel room. When I travel, I leave all my things in the bathroom, and keep them there the whole time. It's the least likely place to have a bedbug.

You need to be really careful about picking up anything on the street. We've dealt with flea markets to give them instructions on how to prevent infestations. Part of our recommendations also deal with donating clothing, furniture. People can be well meaning and do these things not realizing that they have bedbugs -- and they're redistributing to a community who can't deal with this.

People shouldn't be surprised that bedbugs are turning up in more and more places. The problem isn't necessarily getting that much worse, but they're moving along with us. They can come into stores via employees, dressing rooms, returns. They're not really easy to transport, but they can be. Don't be paranoid. But be aware. Offices and schools are not their preferred environment; they can survive, but they won't thrive.

If your box spring is infested, you can encase it for $200 to $220, and not have to spend money on a new mattress.

You can put your mattress in a case and sleep on it, with bedbugs inside?
You seal up the mattress and bedsprings and you don't have to discard them. You keep the case on it for a year and can sleep on it.

What's going to happen now that the report has been released?
It all depends. We suggested a public awareness campaign, not necessarily a Madison Avenue campaign. The money should be spent wisely. In dealing with this you learn what a complex environment the city is.

Pesticides are a tool, steam is a tool, vacuuming -- if you have a serious infestation, you should vacuum first. You can call 311 now, and they'll redirect you to the right resource depending on where you live. Heat will kill them, too.

So are there less of them in the summer?
The ambient temperature is not enough to kill them. Bedbugs actually love the high humidity, 80 or 90 degrees, and complete their reproduction cycle in four to six weeks instead of 8 in those cases.

Where's the highest population of bedbugs in New York City?
Brooklyn is off the map. They seem to be going up. On the flip side, we're also seeing a slow to the increase in Manhattan, and in Queens, there's actually a decrease based on the number of complaints. We like to think it's about the information getting out: These are the people who dealt with the bedbugs first.

Does Mayor Bloomberg have bedbugs?
Gale Brewer said all the mayor's friends have bedbugs at the press conference yesterday. Christine Quinn could not back away quick enough. We joked about it -- obviously, the common cause of the factor must be knowing the mayor! No. City offices have been affected, even some offices at the Department of Health. They affect everyone.

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