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Vancouver's Bedbug Plague

Bad already, will it grow to be an Olympic-sized infestation?

By Christopher Pollon 15 May 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Pollon is a Vancouver-based journalist. His website is www.chrispollon.ca.

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Coming to a bed near you?

At least once a week in Vancouver, bug exterminator Mark Amery enters a private home, lifts a mattress and watches the box spring move with blood-sucking vermin.

It's an optical illusion caused by up to a thousand twitching bedbugs, each no larger than a lentil, which are infesting more houses, rental apartments and hotel rooms in Vancouver today than at any point in the city's modern history.

"Four years ago we would get two calls a day for bedbugs in Vancouver, now we get 40 calls a day," says Amery, whose growing company Vancouver Bed Bug Control Inc. has five exterminators working full time in the downtown core.

Infestations can vary from a few bugs to thousands, and they do not discriminate between the rich and poor ("all they care about is blood," says Amery). He typically finds his customers sleep deprived, stressed to the point of tears, and peppered with itchy red bites and welts courtesy of Cimex lectularius, or the common bedbug.

Bedbugs survive for months on end without blood, they are prolific breeders, and can conceal themselves in the smallest and darkest crevices of a bedroom. If a single apartment or condo unit is treated with pesticides, they will migrate through the walls and floors into the adjacent unit to feed on the blood of a new host, like tiny monsters in a low-budget horror movie.

They have been very successful in making southwestern B.C. home. The provincial Ministry of Health reported a 600 per cent increase in cases between 2003 and 2005 alone.

And if the experience in Sydney, Australia is any guide, the 2010 Winter Games will cause the plague to expand even more dramatically.

"The presence of bedbugs continues to increase," says Richard Taki, director of health protection at Vancouver Coastal Health. "Everyone knows that [eradication] is not going to work with bedbugs. All you can do now is try to control it."

A world-wide pest boom

Bedbugs have tormented humans from the time our distant ancestors took to dwelling in caves; they quickly learned it was far easier to feed on the blood of relatively hairless animals. They've been staking out human bedrooms ever since.

In the mid-20th century, the widespread use of DDT and various broad spectrum pesticides and insecticides caused the dramatic decline of the common bedbug -- at least in the more affluent countries of the world.

But since the '70s, the available toxic tools to control pests like bedbugs have dwindled, to the point that modern pest control companies often try to bait and selectively target different insect pests by species. Some treat with steam, and a local B.C. pest control company even offers the services of two bedbug-sniffing dogs. The result has been less nasty toxins sprayed in customer homes, but also more pests.

The last decade has seen a dramatic resurgence of bedbugs throughout the world, a phenomenon attributed largely to the increased mobility of global tourists. Most bedbugs simply hitch a ride in suitcases or even on clothing.

In January of 2007, British bedbug exterminator David Cane told the BBC that the 2000 Sydney Olympics was the single event most responsible for the global bedbug blight currently plaguing urban centres across Europe and North America.

"The explosion of the [global bedbug] population began around the time of the Sydney Games... by the end of the games, about 98 per cent of the hotels in Sydney had at least one infected room, and because it wasn't detected early enough, it spread to other rooms in the hotels, and people transmitted them from location to location."

Closer to home, Amery predicts the coming Winter Olympics will continue in the unsavoury tradition of Sydney, helping expand the bedbug problem which finds its epicentre today in the downtown core of the city.

"Vancouver is a highly visited area, the turnover in hotels is huge, and with the Olympics coming, this problem is only going to get worse."

As one might expect, most hotels in Vancouver, most of which rely on the loyalty of returning customers, are hesitant to even acknowledge the issue, and for good reason.

"Customers don't take it kindly when they find themselves covered in bite marks and they've got blood all over the sheets," Mark Jarvis of extermination company Steritech told the Victoria Times Colonist last January. His company, which offers "brand protection" services in addition to guaranteed bedbug treatment, was in Vancouver at the time to host a private seminar on bedbugs for Vancouver hotel executives.

Bedbugs infest Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

Unlike other pests like cockroaches, bedbugs do not play favourites between the rich and poor: they can be found in the cheapest single room occupancy (SRO) hotel or the most lavish hotel room (see traveller review) or private estate.

This said, there are certain factors that have conspired to make the situation in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) especially dire. Ann Livingston, co-executive program director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, a group that spearheaded a 2007 pilot project to treat three of the neighbourhood's worst infested hotels, says the prevalence is easy to see.

"Hotel [managers] will often say 'we don't have them,' but the easiest way to see if a place has bedbugs is to stand outside on a hot summer day when people wear shorts and you can see all the bites. The infestations in some of these places are just so severe, and the people so ill and unable to do anything. Nobody knows what to do."

Bedbugs are very difficult to control in SROs. Because they are so adept at hiding, bedrooms must be completely dismantled, and a trained expert is needed to know where to look. Even when a landlord is willing to get serious about treating blocks of rooms at a time, units can be difficult to access and properly treat, as many residents of the worst hotels suffer from mental illness and varying levels of addiction.

B.C. Housing, which oversees over 5,000 units of social housing in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland alone, has acknowledged the futility of trying to completely eradicate bedbugs from such environments, despite their ongoing efforts to treat rooms where the bugs are found. The non-profit Lookout Emergency Aid Society, which is funded in part by B.C. Housing, states the following:

"...Warmer weather has led to an infestation of bedbugs through the Lower Mainland, and particularly within the Downtown Eastside," reads a March 2006 Lookout policy document found on the B.C. Housing website. "Bedbugs are particularly difficult to prevent, thus management as well as prevention are key."

Because government agencies across Vancouver and B.C. -- including B.C. Housing -- view the bedbug problem as strictly a pest-control issue (there is no evidence that the bugs can carry disease like a mosquito carries West Nile), this means the residual health impacts of bedbugs are overlooked.

"The major challenge with bedbugs in the DTES is with immune-compromised people," says lawyer David Eby of the Pivot Legal Society. "For some people, the bites get inflamed and opened from itching, causing infection. It's indirect, but this becomes a health issue."

From the core to elsewhere

Some of the bedbugs infesting the Lower Mainland are believed to have originated in the DTES, although confirming this fact is touchy at best.

"People occasionally go to the Downtown Eastside and do naughty things," Vancouver's then-chief medical health officer Dr. John Blatherwick told CBC News in June of 2007. "People take them back to their spouses and their spouses wonder where they got their bedbugs from."

One particularly hard-hit neighbourhood has been the West End -- home to many hotels and densely-populated residential housing, supporting a revolving door of local renters and transient international students.

Exterminator Mark Amery, who is a regular visitor to the neighbourhood, explains why the problem is so bad there, and the psychological toll it can take.

"Let's say three separate people in a same rental place find they have bedbugs," he says. "They panic and move immediately, moving all their beds, clothes, furniture into three separate new places in the same neighbourhood. The bugs are in all their stuff, they spread to the new buildings, and they have to live through it all over again."

The Bedbug Registry is a North American website where alleged bedbug victims can share horror stories and report outbreaks. A report to the site in March of 2008 purported to explain what one Vancouver West Ender had to do to be rid of the bugs:

"Several months of ineffective bug-spraying. Landlord doesn't inform new tenants. Bugs have spread to several apartments. I managed to move out after one month stay (and horror-filled sleepless nights). Packed all my property in garbage bags and washed one by one in hot water for several times."

The final word goes to another exhausted and bitter West End resident who provided the following warning:

"Bedbugs in building.... For anyone thinking of coming to Vancouver for the Olympics, my advice is, 'STAY AWAY FROM THIS AWFUL CITY!!!!'"

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