What Spreads Faster Than Bedbugs? Stigma

Jeremy Sparig spent months fighting bedbugs. Now, to some people, he is like a mattress left on the street, something best avoided in these times.
“They don’t want to hug you anymore; they don’t want you coming over,” said Mr. Sparig, of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “You’re like a leper.”
At the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which recently had a bedbug breakout, defense lawyers are skittish about visiting, and it is not because of the fierce prosecutors.
Even Steven Smollens, a housing lawyer who has helped many tenants with bedbugs, has his guard up. Those clients are barred from his office. “I meet outside,” he said. “There’s a Starbucks across the street.”
Beyond the bites and the itching, the bother and the expense, victims of the nation’s most recent plague are finding that an invisible scourge awaits them in the form of bedbug stigma. Friends begin to keep their distance. Invitations are rescinded. For months, one woman said, her mother was afraid to tell her that she had an infestation. When she found out and went to clean her mother’s apartment, she said, “Nobody wanted to help me.”
Fear and suspicion are creeping into the social fabric wherever bedbugs are turning up, which is almost everywhere: “Public health agencies across the country have been overwhelmed by complaints about bedbugs,” said a joint statement this month from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some of the fear is rooted in fact: The bugs, while they are not known to transmit disease, can travel on clothing, jump into pocketbooks and lurk in the nooks of furniture. And they do, of course, bite.
Wenay James, a credit card account executive in Chicago, said that last year, a friend who had just had an infestation brought her children over for a visit. “I’m staring at their seat,” she said, “wondering if the cushion is going to run across the room.”
“I haven’t been over to her place in a year,” Ms. James said. “I don’t want the cooties.”
Even in New York, where the roach and the rat are considered members of the melting pot, no one wants to be associated with the minuscule pests that treat sleeping bodies as smorgasbords.
Whole livelihoods are considered in jeopardy. Tutors and music teachers, who go from apartment to apartment, fear losing their clients. An Upper West Side caterer canceled work and dressed in long sleeves and pants during July’s hottest days so no one would see her bites. “Who is going to want me in their private home?” said the woman, who was interviewed on the condition that her name not be disclosed, for obvious reasons.
Businesses are fearing the stigma as well, as reports of infestations multiply. In recent weeks, bedbugs snuggled into the seats at AMC’s movie theater in Times Square, crept around a Victoria’s Secret store on Lexington Avenue and the offices of Elle Magazine and hitchhiked into the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
“There were attorneys that didn’t want to come to our building,” said an assistant district attorney who would identify herself only as Caroline A. “I don’t blame them; I wouldn’t want to go somewhere where there is known to be bedbugs.”
But those places are becoming increasingly hard to avoid. Bedbugs, once nearly eradicated, have spread across New York City, in part because of the decline in the use of DDT. According to the city’s Department of Housing and Preservation, the number of bedbug violations has gone up 67 percent in the last two years. In the most recent fiscal year, which ended on June 30, the city’s 311 help line recorded 12,768 bedbug complaints, 16 percent more than the previous year and 39 percent above the year before. A New York City community health survey showed that in 2009, 1 in 15 New Yorkers had bedbugs in their homes, a number that is probably higher now.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that bedbugs’ social cost is rising as well.
The Upper West Side caterer’s best friend was too scared to invite her to come out to the Hamptons this summer. When Hilary Davis, a waitress from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, had her apartment treated two years ago because of bedbugs, her friends and even her boyfriend refused to take her in. (But they were willing to take care of her cat.) “So I was left in a bug-ridden apartment alone,” Ms. Davis said.
Everyday behaviors are changing, too. “I don’t go to the movies anymore, I’m not sitting in those seats, and don’t sit on wooden benches,” said Gale A. Brewer, a member of the City Council. When she sees a mattress in her path, she said, she crosses the street.
But the panic, certainly, is not widespread. “It’s all part of life,” said Janice Page of the Bronx, who recently thought she had received two bites while traveling in California. (They turned out to be mosquito bites.) “What am I going to do? Walk around with a fumigation can?”
“It’s like terrorism,” said a woman as she ran into the recently sprayed AMC theater. “Just cross your fingers and keep going.”
A bill awaiting Gov. David A. Paterson’s signature would require landlords to disclose to potential tenants whether any apartment in the building has had bedbugs within the previous year. The bill passed the Legislature despite opposition from many landlords, who feared it would stigmatize their buildings.
Mr. Sparig fought his landlord in court, representing himself, and recently settled the case for a rare 100 percent rent cut for eight months of the nine that his apartment was infested, as long as he promised to move out. Not surprisingly, he is having trouble finding a new home, doubly stigmatized by having had bedbugs, which he acknowledges to prospective landlords, and by having been in court with his previous one. Now, he said, they “don’t even let me come over” to see an apartment.
Perhaps no one is more tuned into bedbug paranoia than Steven Brodsky, a Midtown psychotherapist. He treats people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and, in that capacity, has attracted a number of bedbug victims.
Patients tell him they feel like they are “sacrificing themselves because they’re literally being eaten as they sleep,” he said.
“It really is like H1N1,” Dr. Brodsky said, using the clinical term for last year’s bugaboo, swine flu. “Everybody is concerned about it, wondering if they’ll be next.”
But Mr. Brodsky himself likes to sleep tight, once the last patient of the day has left. “I do check the chair to see if there’s anything,” he said.

Emma Graves Fitzsimmons and Mathew R. Warren contributed reporting.

Information about bedbugs from Dr. Andrew Weil:

After more than 20 years of near extinction, bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) now seem to be everywhere in the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now regards bed bugs as a “major problem.” The reason for the big uptick seems to be increased international travel – these pests are hitching rides in our luggage. The good news is that bed bugs don’t transmit disease – they’re certainly unpleasant to have around, but they don’t pose an immediate health risk.
You may have a bed bug infestation if:

  • You see the bugs themselves – they are oval, flattened, brown, wingless insects that are about 1/4 inch long.
  • When you get up in the morning you have red welts on your skin.
  • You see blood and orangish-brown spots of bug feces on pillows and sheets.
  • There is an unpleasant, pungent odor in or near the bed.

To prevent an infestation, try these measures:

  • When traveling, check behind hotel bed frames and under mattress covers for orangish-brown fecal spots.
  • When you get home, wash all your clothes in hot water and store suitcases in a plastic bag in a hot car trunk or attic.
  • Use a mattress cover designed to suppress bed bugs.

Getting rid of bed bugs isn’t easy, as they seem to be developing resistance to most natural pesticides.  If you have bed bugs, get professionals to handle the extermination, and ask them to first try pumping hot air into your bedroom – bed bugs can’t survive extreme heat.