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Hong Kong environmental issues

Volunteers tackle Hong Kong bedbug horrors pros won’t touch, and don’t charge a cent to clients poor, old, or ill – and desperate

With government washing its hands of bedbug infestations and private pest control unaffordable for the sick, elderly or poor, a secret Hong Kong army deals with the worst cases for no fee, but they only touch the tip of the iceberg

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 7:47am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 8:20am

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, and a group of volunteers in overalls storms a flat on a public housing estate in Hong Kong’s Tuen Mun district. An overpowering stench, detectable even through a face mask, hits them as soon as they enter. One reaches for the light switch, but that proves futile: there’s no light bulb in the socket.

Fortunately, natural light streaming in through the window is strong enough to illuminate the unpleasant scene before them. The walls are covered in tiny black spots – bedbug droppings. One part of the flat is piled high with rubbish, and the floor is stained and caked in grime. The most sickening sight, however, is the bed, which is crawling with bedbugs. Hanging from its metal frame is what looks like a hornets’ nest but is actually a cluster of bedbugs, with their excrement, eggs, and shed skin casts.

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The scene is not for the faint of heart, but the volunteers face it calmly and get down to work. The flat is in bad shape, but not the worst the team has seen since it took on this job in June 2017.

Bedbugs (Cimex hemipterus) feed on blood and can be found in all types of homes, clean or dirty, big or small. They breed rapidly and even interbreed, which increases their resistance to pesticides.

The Hong Kong Housing Department says it logged 86 complaint calls about the insects last year – fewer than in 2015 or 2016. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department recorded only five complaints in 2017. However, not everyone affected will call the government, because of the stigma attached. Also, the government’s position is that pest control is the responsibility of the affected residents, who can call on the services of private companies to help them.

The free pest control services were started by Joe Li Hin-man, a project director for a renovations company, and Poon Kwok-hin, a structural engineer. They were initially organising a network of volunteers – named Foot Print Voluntary Team and Build & Wish Voluntary Team, mainly delivering second-hand furniture and offering home repair services to the underprivileged. One day they got a call from a social worker inquiring whether they could treat bedbugs.

The social worker was asking on behalf of a 70-year-old man who lived alone. He had tried to hire a pest control company but could not afford the HK$13,500 (US$1,700) service fee. After consulting experts, Li and Poon got together a team of volunteers and conducted their first bedbug treatment. They returned to the old man’s flat twice after their first visit to inspect the flat and make sure it was bug-free.

The team has since tackled what they have been told were some of the worst bedbug infestations in Hong Kong – all without charge. Some of the cases have been so severe that a professional pest control company and an NGO they partnered with bailed out.

Though the group has never publicised the service, in the past year they have received dozens of requests for help through referrals – far more than they can handle on a voluntary basis. They have given priority to the most desperate cases – social security recipients, the elderly and people with mental disorders who cannot take care of themselves.

They’d kill me if they found out
A volunteer who hasn’t told her family

“There is nowhere they can turn to for help,” says Li.

Poon says: “The problem in public housing is getting worse because the tenants generally do not know how to treat an infestation properly and there is a very high chance of the bedbugs spreading, particularly among underprivileged families who are not able to pay the expensive cost of debugging.”

To make matters worse, many of the affected tenants rely on meal delivery and home care services to get by. But these services are cancelled if social workers find bedbugs in the flats, because of concerns that the bloodsuckers could hitch a ride to other homes.

Just this month, the team treated the flat of a person suffering from schizophrenia, whose employment at a sheltered workshop had been abruptly suspended when a co-worker spotted a bedbug crawling on his shirt.

“There is no support at all from government departments for these people … and that is why the social workers knock on our door for help. We are the last resort for them,” Poon says.

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In a response to an inquiry from the Post, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department wrote: “Bedbugs are generally not considered as disease vectors … a good number of private companies that provide pest control services are available in the market. Members of the public who have bedbug problems at home may seek assistance from these companies direct.”

The Housing Department says it only addresses bedbug problems in common areas of public housing estate, such as corridors and staircases. If it receives a complaint about bedbugs or a request for assistance, “estate office staff will visit the concerned units to assess the condition and explain to the residents the method of eliminating bedbugs, and remind them to maintain personal and household hygiene”, a department spokesman says.

Li and Poon say the scale of the problem is far too great for their team to tackle, and they hope the government will intervene with more concrete measures to deal with bedbug infestations. In the meantime, they are doing what they can – one flat at a time.

The duo hold regular workshops, with the aim of recruiting more volunteers and educating them in how to properly deal with bedbugs.

The problem in public housing is getting worse because the tenants generally do not know how to treat an infestation properly
Poon Kwok-hin

Volunteers come from all walks of life: there’s a housewife who says her family would disapprove (“They’d kill me if they found out,” she says), a university lecturer, an online seller who dreams of running her own dog shelter, and a courier who used to work for a pest control company and wants to start his own.

Some – such as an unemployed man who lives in a subdivided flat once plagued by bedbugs, and a homeless man in his 70s – are themselves from underprivileged backgrounds. Supported by the charitable Shih Wing Ching Foundation, the team pays them at an hourly rate, helping to fulfil a vision to provide bug treatment services “for the needy, with the needy, by the needy”.

The job of eradicating bugs is challenging enough, but there are additional difficulties. The tenant of the infested 80 sq ft flat in Tuen Mun is a 78-year-old man. He is nowhere to be found when the team arrives at his door with the social worker in tow. The social worker looks around the estate for him and finally finds him hiding in a fast-food restaurant.

The social worker says he tried to treat his bedbug problem using a pesticide four years ago, but failed to contain the situation. Since then, the infestation has been left to grow.

Two hours into the mission, sweat drenches the volunteers’ overalls. Bedbugs stream out of the furniture as Li runs hot steam over it, while a volunteer sprays pesticide over every surface.

Another volunteer, the housewife, has scrubbed away layers of filth in the kitchen and given it a complete makeover. She moves on to the toilet, but gags when she catches the stench before she even enters.

Li urges her to take a rest and takes over the toilet cleaning duties.

Three team members, each wearing two pairs of gloves, sort through the man’s belongings, identifying important documents and memorabilia, and tossing out the rest.

The volunteers never know what they will find. At the flat of a mentally handicapped person, they tore through carefully sealed plastic bags only to find used sanitary towels. At another flat, they uncovered boxes of porn magazines, stained with bedbug faeces.

On another mission, the mountains of rubbish and belongings eventually filled 120 green waste bins at the local refuse collection point.

Fortunately, its elderly resident does not have many belongings. Boxes of expired medicines, old newspapers, handwritten notes on horse betting slips and clothes are treated with pesticide, then sealed in black rubbish bags and tagged with a note that reads: “Bedbugs inside … not to be opened until December 2018.” (Bedbugs can live for as long as six months without food, Li explains.)

Among the few items not discarded are a catering and cooking certificate issued in 1983, silver coins and a watch. The team replaces the missing light bulb and bed, and move in a plastic cabinet. As a final touch, diatomaceous earth powder – which kills bedbugs by dehydrating them – is scattered around the bed to stop any bugs still alive reaching their victim again.

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What the team does is nothing like those dramatic home renovations you see on a reality TV show, where the tenant returns to find a beautiful makeover. The flat feels eerily empty and a musty smell still lingers, but at least it is now habitable.