San Francisco To Track Bedbugs' Trails

San Francisco bedbugs: Stand up and be counted.

By Katharine Mieszkowski
|  Tuesday, Nov 13, 2012  |  Updated 7:48 AM PDT
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San Francisco To Track Bedbugs' Trails

San Francisco bedbugs: Stand up and be counted.

That is the message from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which approved an ordinance last week that aims to give the city a more accurate picture of where the pests lurk.

Exterminators will now be required to report to the Department of Public Health about the number of units that they treat for bedbugs each month. While they won’t have to include the address of the infested apartments or hotels, they will be required to identify each unit’s census tract to help chart the bugs’ distribution around the city.

“From a public health point of view, it’s very important to be able to target your resources, and this will give us a chance to do this,” said Karen Cohn, a program manager at the department’s Environmental Health Section.

While the bedbug population has increased nationally in recent years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the city of San Francisco does not have reliable data on the persistent pests’ prevalence here.

The ordinance, backed by Supervisor Jane Kim, reflects concern among tenants advocates that the city remains unaware of how widespread the blood-sucking bugs really are.

“Tenants advocates have been saying for years that we’re experiencing a grave problem, if not an epidemic, of bedbugs in the city,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of the counseling program for the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, a tenants rights organization. “I think that a lot of people thought that we were exaggerating or being alarmist. But I think by better tracking, everyone will have a better sense of how widespread the problem is,” she said.

In 2010, the San Francisco health department received 370 complaints about bedbugs. Of these, the department was able to confirm infestation in 152 cases. But these complaints by no means reflect all such infestations in the city. “Most people can resolve these problems without coming to us,” said Cohn from the health department.

Brad Bishop, owner of Sleep Tight Pest Control, said his firm alone treats about 500 units a year, primarily in San Francisco.

Some San Franciscans may be surprised where the bugs turn up. “Better data will get rid of some of the stigma around this issue that bedbugs only happen to poor people or in neighborhoods that are struggling,” said Matthias Mormino, Kim's legislative aide.

The new ordinance, which amends the city's health code, also requires more transparency from landlords. When a prospective tenant asks a landlord or property manager about an apartment or room’s bedbug history, the landlord or property manager will be required to disclose in writing the unit’s history of infestation and abatement over the previous two years. “That is taken from a provision that New York introduced two years ago,” Mormino said. “It’s really for the tenants’ protection.”

Under the San Francisco ordinance, the landlord is only required to provide the bedbug disclosure to prospective tenants who ask.

Sorry, tourists: Hotels and motels that cater to visitors are not required to disclose to guests their bedbug history. “We don’t want to scare people off,” said Bishop, who serves on San Francisco’s Bedbug Working Group, which crafted the ordinance. “The hotels are required to do everything else in our legislation, except tell potential people when they’re coming in.”

The ordinance also requires the health department to produce literature about the rights and responsibilities of pest control operators, tenants, and property owners and managers in bedbug abatement.

The common bedbug – Cimex lectularius – feeds on the blood of warm-blooded animals, with humans as the preferred hosts, causing itchy bites. “Bed bugs do not discriminate,” wrote Joshua Vining, community organizer for the Mission SRO Collaborative, which is a program of Dolores Street Community Services, who is part of the city’s bedbug working group, in an email. “As long as a person is alive and breathing, and creating heat, they are a target for these pests.”

Tenants advocates hope that the new data about bedbugs in San Francisco, which should begin coming out early next year, will unleash more resources for fighting the pest, including potential funding for laundry services to rid clothes of bedbugs for low-income tenants and incentives for landlords to seal pathways between units, according to Vining.

Bedbugs, which live up to 18 months, can be tough to fight, requiring multiple treatments to vanquish them. The bugs sometimes persist after they’re thought to be long gone because they can remain dormant for long periods of time after feeding.

While irritating, the pest is not known to transmit any disease, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The adult bugs are reddish brown with microscopic hairs that gives them a banded appearance, according to San Francisco’s health department. The wingless bugs are oval after a blood meal.

“It’s kind of like having little vampires living in your apartment,” said Avicolli Mecca, of the Housing Rights Committee. “It’s not like having ants.”

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This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit, investigative news sources in the Bay Area and a part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.

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