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Are bedbugs a health problem?


The past ten years have seen a surge of bedbug infestations across North America, with many cities across Canada affected. 

Although they do not cause or transmit disease, bedbug infestations are often perceived to be a health problem.
An effective and efficient bedbug strategy requires coordination among various sectors, including public health, housing, community and social services as well as the private sector.

Everyone hates bedbugs. But are they a health problem? The response to bedbugs often involves the health care system, along with housing authorities and pest control experts.

We went on the street to ask people who should be responsible for dealing with a bedbug infestation in a rental unit or apartment building. Click on the video below to see what they have to say.

In Ontario, landlords and property owners are responsible for ensuring that dwellings are free of pests like bedbugs, and tenants are required to cooperate with a landlord’s efforts to deal with infestations. However, efforts at eradicating bedbugs are often unsuccessful, leading to anxiety, escalating costs and discord between landlords and tenants.

Bedbugs – the health impact

Bedbugs do not transmit infections. Most people who are bitten by a bedbug suffer at most a minor skin reaction, similar in severity to the reaction from a mosquito bite. However, the health impact of a bedbug infestation goes beyond the skin. Stephen Hwang, a general internist at St. Michaels Hospital says that “although bedbugs do not spread disease, they cause physical and mental distress.” Tracy Leach, leader of the bedbug team for Toronto Public Health agrees, saying that “it’s not just the physical presence of bedbugs that people experience, but also the stigma and social isolation.”

While bedbugs affect people from all walks of life, they occur most often among people who live in lower income housing, high-density dwellings and shelters.

Infestations in high-density housing environments are particularly difficult and costly to eradicate, and require the combination of repeated pesticide treatments with environmental measures such as laundering of bed linens, frequent vacuuming and steam cleaning of mattresses and bedding. This is a costly, challenging undertaking and according to Leach “people who are vulnerable may have a reduced capacity to deal with this because of physical and mental health problems and addictions.” She adds that “services that people have [such as home care] may be reduced or eliminated because workers do not want to go into an infested home.”

Although harmful pesticides such as DDT were used to treat bedbugs in the early part of the 20th century, modern treatment methods use safer pesticides and protocols that minimize their use. Treatment involves careful inspection of a dwelling for bedbugs, their shells and eggs, manual methods (e.g., vacuuming, sealing of inaccessible spaces, etc.) and the application of steam or pesticides that break down quickly and are safe when used as directed.

Complex problem, no easy solutions 

Ray Copes, director of Occupational and Environmental Health for Public Health Ontario suggests that “the real public health problem is housing and the lack of social support for people who have mental illnesses and people who are socially disadvantaged and impoverished, which isn’t the same as bedbugs.” Copes says that “once bedbugs are seen as the problem, then the issue morphs into one where dealing with the bedbugs themselves is the focus.”

Arlene King, the Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario, describes bedbugs as a ”challenge which manifest themselves in the health sector, but the solution does not lie in the health sector.” King says “the solutions lie with other sectors, for example housing authorities and others who can deal with the problem of identification and management of bedbugs.” King notes that the recently implemented provincial bedbug strategy received input from a committee composed of representatives of eight different provincial ministries – including Community and Social Services, Health Promotion, and Municipal Affairs and Housing. The strategy included the creation of the website bedbugsinfo.ca and the provision of one-time funding to public health units across Ontario to support local bed bug initiatives for the period April 2011 to March 2012.

When asked about the next steps for the bedbug strategy, King responded that no decision has been made about continuing funding for bedbugs. She did however say that “we are continuing to collect data and information on those activities, and that information will inform next steps with respect to this issue.” She notes that “at a minimum, we will have to continue to provide information to the public on how to prevent, identify and control bedbugs.”

Intersectoral approaches

Tracy Leach’s team at Toronto Public Health received some of this one-time funding. Her team focuses on providing what she describes as “integrated pest management” with a team including 6 inspectors and 3 public health nurses. The public health nurse position is aimed at supporting bedbug control activities, including health assessments and support for vulnerable populations who are experiencing infestations or recurrent infestations. The bedbug inspection conducted by this team includes two or more professionals who “go in and examine the structure, space, and environment of a bedbug infestation” and provide guidance to tenants, property owners and landlords about appropriate treatment and control measures. Last year, the City of Toronto conducted 3500 inspections. Leach notes however that Toronto Public Health does not itself provide treatment or pest control.

Copes acknowledges that there is “debate, confusion and lack of consensus around the legal issues and ethics of responding to bedbugs” and that there are questions about “who is responsible and who pays.” The cost of eradicating bedbugs in a single apartment can climb into the thousands of dollars, with costs for pest control, dry cleaning and purchasing new furniture.

However, paying for pest control in one unit may not solve the bedbug problem for long, as bedbugs can travel between apartments. While property owners and landlords are responsible for dealing with a bedbug infestation, a tenant’s cooperation is vital. For example, a single individual can thwart a building-wide effort to manage bedbugs by not complying with requests to remove furniture or clean bedding.

Hwang, who has published a case report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal describing an unusual complication of a severe bedbug infestation, says that more commonly “there is nothing that a doctor or nurse can do on their own, as the problem is in the housing environment.”

Do you think that the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care should be coordinating a response and strategy for bedbugs?

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This article has been closed to comments. 7 comments

  1. Sharon

    Funny how everyone answered with a question tone. this was not a test and there are no wrong answers, no?!

  2. Karen Copeland

    This was a difficult one to vote on.. The one thing I am strongly against is putting it in the hands of the Provincial and/or Federal Health Departments. They have hardly proven themselves useful at true health problems so I would not expect anything better out of them with a borderline issue such as bedbugs.

    I live in a Community Housing building in Ottawa and I must say that we have one of the country’s best run projects in Ontario and maybe even in Canada.I would not think running 200+ buildings with the variety of tenants that they deal with is an easy thing to do. In this building alone there are people from just about every type of upbringing that you can imagine, every level of education and from all corners of the world.

    We have had a go-round or two with bedbugs. Housing had exterminators in here post haste and got rid of them. They also held public meetings to educate people. Perhaps one of the bigger problems with bedbugs is that they are the worlds most effective hitchhikers and they do not discriminate – they are problematic in 5 star hotels also. The biggest bit of misinformation is that only dirty people get them but bedbugs are not after anyone’s leftovers or excrement – they are after blood. And they are willing to wait – they can live about a year without biting anyone.

    I personally think that both the landlord and the tenant are responsible for getting rid of them. A bottle of diatomateous earth is easy enough for tenants to use, relatively safe – it is not a chemical. But it does require using some safety measures – you do not want to breathe it in or rub it into your skin. Under a microscope it looks like glass shards and it works by cutting whatever creepy crawly walks through it and, insects do not heal, they dehydrate to death. I spray the hall outside my door and I sprayed the mattress which is covered by a mattress cover. I spray it under and around the sinks to keep the cockroaches out as they like to move around in the pipes from apartment to apartment. As long as it isn’t vacuumed up, it works so I do it often in the halls and only when I clean the cupboards. Costs me less than $20,00 a year. That it gets rid of any creepy crawly that wanders in is a plus. Initially, if I buy second hand furniture, I give it a good treatment just in case. I’ve done my part and now it is up to Housing to do their part – educate those moving in to do their part or to lay out the big bucks for an exterminator.

    As for the health issue, it seems to me it does more damage to one’s mental health than their physical health. Just listening to people talk about bedbugs sends me for a shower and has me imaging the little devils crawling all over me. Plus like the author mentioned, there is a social stigma attached to getting them in your place. It is unfair and undeserved but it is there. So it is much easier to just do your part from the get go. And remember, bedbugs can live a long time without biting you so don’t treat your place once and then quit. I do the hall once a week and my bed twice a year and my cupboards whenever I wash them down.

  3. Unknown

    Bedbug treatments should ALWAYS be left to professional pest control companies!!!!!

    • Karen Copeland

      An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. However if you DO get them, I agree that some professionals are better equipped to rid your place of them. Some do not seem to have any better a handle on bedbugs than anyone else so before you call one, do your homework and research them.

      And the Health Ministries are overworked in REAL diseases and under educated in just about everything. (Have you listened to them stutter and stammer on the news?) Why would anyone put this in their hands?

  4. D.J. MacMenamin

    I used to live in Toronto for 70 years and the problem in our building at that time was Cockroaches. If I still lived in Toronto I would definitely want the Dept. Of Public Health involved with this problem, as well as the Property owner. If 6 inspectors and 3 Public Health Nurses can do anything to help with the problem then that is a small price to pay.

    • Karen Copeland

      Ah! Toronto! I don’t know if bugs are a general problem or just a Housing problem. Saw a show on CTV last year about the roaches in Housing and had nightmares for a week. THAT problem looked like even the entire Canadian Armed Forces needed to be called out to solve it or perhaps a demolition crew. LOL

      Seriously though, even that problem could be handled by the landlord and tenants. Of course, Toronto would need to acknowledge that there is a problem and that Housing Rep they interviewed would not do that even when the roaches, a usually nocturnal type of creature, could be seen flying around even the light fixtures. Sometimes some people are just not cut out for the jobs they have.

  5. Tanya

    Governments must focus on the critical elements that impact our citizens – not bed bug infestations. Rather governments need to focus on health, housing, social equity.

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