Monday, February 14, 2011

The New York Metro area leads the country in Bedbugs (Great!) What do you do if you find out there are bedbugs in your building?

Donna Antonucci

I loved the picture above of two Hollister models that were forced to spend the day on the street while the store was fumigated for bedbugs.  Thank God it was July and not February!  I figured if we were going to talk about bedbugs this is a much more appealing picture than what the little critters look like.

I decided to write on this topic because I heard about a unit that had to be pulled off the market because of a bed bug infestation.  I was horrified and glad I had not taken anyone there.

Here is a "heat" chart of bedbug reports across the nation as reported by the Bedbug Registry.  You can see that the most heavily covered area centers around NYC.  NYC is our largest entry point into the country and given its high density living, it's a great breeding ground for bedbugs.  With Hoboken and Jersey City just across the river and connected by public transportation, we need to be careful that we don't end up with the same level of problem here as in NYC.  I say "level" because bedbugs are already in Hoboken and JC. 

The question is what do you do if bedbugs are found in your building?

NYC started a Bedbug Commission last April and working with the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH), they came up with a variety of recommendations.

The first thing you have to do is alert everyone in the building. Giving everyone the heads up will allow them to look for bedbugs in his/her unit and will alert them to stay away from the infested unit until the issue is resolved.  

Understand the various treatments:  Chemical, Chyro-Chemical and Heat treatment.  Chemical is the most common.  It's also the cheapest.  It may take repeated visits to eradicate an infestation. Chryo-Chemical is where a chemical freezing process is used.  Its cost and efficacy is somewhere in the middle.  Heat is where heaters are brought in to raise the temperature of a unit to above 130 degrees for 4 plus hours.  The bugs cannot survive at this temperature.  It is the most expensive and is more commonly used in large commercial buildings who cannot necessarily rely on Tenants to diligently report incidents of bedbugs, nor do they want the liability that comes with the chemical treatment. 

There is a bit of controversy over what is the right way to go.  Some feel the chemicals are really toxic but even the chemical treatment can be anywhere from $600 to $1,000 for the average size unit. Heat treatment can be $2,000 to $3,000 per treatment although one treatment may be enough.  Heat is touted as the safest in terms of health and the most fool proof.

Both the NYC Bedbug Commission and the NCHH agree that treatment alone is not enough.  The residents play a very big role in eradicating the infestation.  They have to be prepared for treatment so that whatever treatment plan is used, it has a chance of working.  

Highly infected items such as box springs, mattresses and couches have to be discarded but they also have to be discarded properly.  They have to be wrapped securely in plastic and taken out in a manner so that the problem is not moved to the hall and perhaps other units in the building.  One of the NYC Bedbug Commission recommendations was to encourage small businesses to offer bedbug treatment preparation services.  The Commission feels that people and the risk of spreading the problem further are better off to bring professionals in who know exactly what to, how to do it properly and to ensure all the steps are followed. 

Discarded items should not be put out at the curb but should be carted to a dump where they won't infect someone walking by.  In NYC it's illegal (and gross) to rummage and I can't imagine picking through a pile that contain an old mattress but people do it. 

Residents should also wash all of their fabrics at 140 degrees or greater.  If they use a common laundry, it's advisable they take the laundry off site to a vendor that can insure that the machines operate at the required temperature. 

The apartment has to be de-cluttered.  It's best to pack up your belongings in tupperware and put it offsite.  It allows the exterminator to get in around effective areas.  The containers can be easily inspected and the outside treated for larvae.  Most of your possession may have to stay offsite to the end of the entire treatment process which could be as long as 45 days.

Here is a chart that shows where bedbugs like to hang out:

The treatment, no matter which one is chosen will often include high powered vacuuming by the vendor which is why de-cluttering, washing and moving disinfected items offsite and discarded highly infected items are important.

Residents will also have instructions for after the treatment such as enclosing a new mattress in a specific type of mattress cover to prevent any future mattress infestation.  

Blood hounds Making sure any plan worked.

It's also a good idea to bring in a blood hound after a treatment has been performed (at least 30 days after any chemical treatment so the dog is not made ill by any of the chemicals, some say 45 days).  Bedbugs put off a specific smell and blood hounds can be trained to detect them.  They can detect the presence of bedbugs long before the situation gets out of hand. 

The plan should start with a qualified exterminator WHO OFFERS MORE THAN ONE TYPE OF TREATMENT.  I say this because if a vendor only offers one type that's the only solution he will recommend.

After the vendor is selected and he sees the unit - how bad it is, how cluttered it is -  a written plan should be created.  The process should start with a meeting between the vendor, the owner, the Tenants and the property manager representing the condo association if it's in a condo building  to make sure the Tenants and the Owner know what has to happen before the vendor shows up.

In NYC and NJ, the Owner is responsible for the eradication of bedbugs.  I don't really agree with this on principal.  Assuming an outbreak isn't detected at the beginning of a new lease, it's much more likely that the Tenants brought in the bedbugs than if the bedbugs were there from a previous Tenant and Landlord did not provide an un-infested apartment.   In the apartment in Hoboken where bedbugs were detected, the Tenants have been living there for over 15 years.  They had recently done some international travel.  The problem surged in Europe and other places first and it's easy for a bedbug to hitch a ride in your luggage. 

I think a decision was made by lawmakers that many Tenants don't have the money necessarily to address this issue, it's already an epidemic so the state threw the responsibility onto the Landlord.  Most condo associations make the Landlord responsible for his/her Tenants.  If the property is a rental in a condo building, it's advisable that the association is involved because once the problem moves to the hall or another unit, the association can be held accountable for damages.   If the association determines that the problem was contained to a specific unit, then spread to the hallway and other units due to the lack of action of the landlord, the association can hold the Landlord accountable for the costs and loss of property for allowing it to spread.  This is a gray area and would have to play out in case law in court.  The association would have to show that the issue was contained to a specific unit and then spread out from there ie circumstantial evidence.  Again another good reason to get a blood hound - you can establish where the bugs were and weren't as of a specific point in time. 

Net, net early detection and a proactive stance is what you need to fight this problem.  It's expensive but if you don't do anything about it or you try to do a lesser treatment, it could easily cost more in the end.  The bedbug extermination business is relatively new and these companies are developing new treatments to deal with the issue as it continues to escalate.  Often new technology is expensive because it's scarce.  The chemicals are expensive and the heat machines are a huge investment for any vendor.  So, fight the bedbug head on and don't let the problem linger.

Here are some helpful links if you want to see what the NCHH and NYC Bedbug Commission have to say about the issue and more details on how to deal with the problem.  

National Center for Healthy Housing Report

NYC Bedbug Commission Report

NYC Bedbug Guide

Information provided by Donna Antonucci
Prudential Castle Point Realty


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