Philadelphia has a growing bedbug problem. While that notoriety may come as no surprise to residents in 2014, newly published research led by Michael Levy, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, may offer some added insight into the scope and scale of the problem.
And it's one that may give residents some temporary reprieve during these bitingly cold winter months.
Levy and colleagues have been tracking bedbugs in Philadelphia since 2008. In warmer months, they go door-to-door, targeting certain neighborhoods to better track the problem and understand how people and communities are (and aren't) addressing these pests.
Levy's team has also assessed complaints reported to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health's Vector Control Services based on the geographic area and time of year between 2008 and 20012.
Complaints ranged from calls about snails to raccoons, but steadily rising each year were complaints about bedbugs. Of the nearly 500 complaints to the city between September of 2011 and June 2012, 236 pertained to bedbugs. While people may mistake other bugs for bedbugs in filing a complaint, Levy thinks these reports are just the scratching the surface.
"A lot of people have bed bugs and very few people are talking about it," he said. "Everyone kind of thinks they're the only one on the block."
Levy mapped those 236 complaints to counter that notion [see above]. The report noted a "widespread distribution" throughout the city, with a number of small hotspots, mainly in South Philadelphia. Hotspots also surfaced in Northeast and West Philadelphia. Based on this research and anecdotal evidence, Levy said,, bedbugs are permeating private residences, public housing, nursing homes, and yes, even college campuses.
Tis (not) the 'bedbug season'
While bedbugs are appearing all over the city, cold weather may offer a bit of relief. Levy's team found that complaints spiked in the summer and dropped during the winter.
"Everyone was calling in June, July, August, It's really in the summer," he said.
Levy has some theories: bedbugs may reproduce a lot faster and move more quickly around households when it's warmer.
For area bedbug exterminators such as Jeff White, with New Jersey-based BedBug Central, the findings are no surprise. White has noted seasonal fluctuations in his own business for years.
"We saw it very, very clearly," he said. "A significant two to three times increase in bedbug calls in July and September, which we call our bedbug season."
He did his own survey of major pest-control companies around the country, which reported similar experiences. The reason remains "the million-dollar question," but White said he agrees with Levy's theories.
Neither, however, have yet to figure out how this knowledge might improve bedbug interventions.
"So the question is, when do we want to treat them, when they're all over place or when they're at lower populations?" said Levy.
Problem spurs new city mattress policy
While Philadelphia does not have any one agency actively addressing the bedbug problem (the bugs are not known vectors for transmitting diseases to people), the City Streets Department recently established a new mattress-disposal policy, modeled after New York City's. Philadelphia also has some general bedbug information for residents, and the health department advices those with bedbugs to contact private pest control professionals to handle the situation.
"It's just, after you get so many complaints from state reps, council members, from residents and from employees, there just had to be some kind of decision made," said Donald Carlton, Philadelphia's deputy streets commissioner.
Residents must encase mattress and box springs slated for pickup in a plastic bag, available at major retail stores. If not, starting Feb. 1, they'll face a $50 fine.
"It prevents the spread of the bedbugs to neighbors, it prevents the spread of bedbugs to some of our employees as they discard the mattresses," Carlton said.
Regardless of the time of year, Levy cautioned that bedbugs typically don't quickly or easily travel from one house to another.
"It's probably very rare that they're hanging on a person and then jumping off a person in another house," he said. "It's more long-term movements between houses where people bring their stuff."
Or, if someone were to, say, pick up one of those bedbug-infested mattresses off the street.
Tune in to The Pulse Friday, Jan. 17, to hear more about the latest on bedbug prevention and Levy's research on the bedbug's "evil cousin" in Peru.