Year of the Bug bites into the Big Apple

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2008, 12:00am

New York

The Year of the Rat is fast approaching, but New York councillor Gale Brewer has already declared this the Year of the Bug. No, she is not confused about the lunar calendar, she is worried that bedbugs may have outpaced rats and other pests to become the No1 household enemy of New Yorkers.

Incidents of domestic violence dropped a whopping 36 per cent last year and helped to send down the murder rate, so New York has kept its title as the safest big city in the US. But, meanwhile, domestic annoyance brought by the lentil-sized reddish-brown insects increased rapidly. Bedbug-related complaints to the city's municipal hotline hit 7,000 last year, almost four times the number in 2004.

In a city where the income level of a neighbourhood's residents plays a big role in accessibility to almost everything from fresh vegetables to bank branches, bedbugs seem to be providing one of the few real equal opportunities.

They settle in government projects as well as luxury condos and suck blood without profiling the poor or the rich.

In Ms Brewer's district, people who get these unsolicited guests have to throw away almost all their furniture and clothes. Some of them spent thousands of dollars on exterminators, but suffered from sleeplessness afterwards because of the trauma. In extreme cases, they moved out of their old homes only to find their 'little friends' had followed them to the new place.

'These are people living in the Upper Westside of Manhattan who are middle class and hysterical,' Ms Brewer said. 'If we have rats, cockroaches or mites, we get rid of them. We know how to do it. But with bedbugs, we don't know what to do.'

The vacuum in pest control knowledge can be traced to the long absence of the tiny creatures. Bedbugs had been under control in the country for at least five decades before they made a return in the past five years. The resurgence is a result of the ban on DDT, which had been highly effective when used in pesticides, and the increasing mobility of people.

All over the country bedbugs have ignited human battles - tenants fight landlords, house buyers accuse the sellers of deception and tourists sue exclusive hotels. But in New York, record tourist numbers and a thriving second-hand furniture market have created an epidemic. Unlike other cities like San Francisco and Boston where bedbug-infested furniture has to be put in special bags or identified with bright stickers, New York has few regulations.

A mattress full of bedbugs, which are resistant to the normal pesticides and can survive for 18 months without food, can be picked up off the streets of New York without the innocent rummagers being warned.

In 2006, Ms Brewer proposed several bills about the issue. She aimed to ban the sale of reconditioned mattresses and bases which can be a haven for bedbugs. But the bills went nowhere partly because the mayor's office thought a ban would prevent the poor from getting a bed.

Now Ms Brewer is promoting a series of forums, which started yesterday, to make more people realise how serious the problem is. She will then redraft and again propose her legislation.

The state government, which oversees the mattress industry, is also catching up. The state passed a law in the late 1990s to reduce oversight of the second-hand furniture trade and left the regulation of reconditioned mattresses to the state and health departments. Those authorities are still to produce guidelines.

But the state recently started to reconsider its position.

It is also trying to figure out how to balance the benefits and costs. 'Bedbugs are a new issue. The second-hand furniture market has been around for a long time. It exists for a reason,' said Eamon Moynihan, a spokesman for the state government.

'If you have a really onerous regulation then you could be shutting down the industry that offers products to low-income people. There is no simple solution.'

Tomorrow: London