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Bedbugs: coming soon to a single-family home near you

Globe and Mail - Saturday, December 20, 2003
By John Barber

You read it first in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, which recently published a "commentary" on everything bad about Hogtown. "The shelters have bedbugs," homeless Torontonian Gary LeBouthillier informed a visiting reporter. "They're disgusting."

Then this week, driving Mr. LeBouthillier's point home with scientific authority, the University of Toronto released a research bulletin by urban entomologist Tim Myles confirming that local homeless shelters are infested with bedbugs -- and reminding those who had forgotten or never knew anything about these "wingless, blood-sucking parasites" that they are, indeed, disgusting.

"We are at the bottom end of an exponential growth curve," the scientist told The Globe and Mail, adding that it is only a matter of time before the pest escapes from its shelter-based "reservoir" to infest nursing homes, hospitals, hotels, apartment buildings and "eventually detached single-family homes."

You don't need a Bible to comprehend the morality of this latest plague. "Psychological torment" is its major medical consequence, according to the eye-opening bulletin. And social torment is as good as any other explanation for its "phenomenal resurgence" in 21st-century North American cities.

"Bedbugs may be a biological indicator of changing social conditions," the bulletin notes dryly, going on to predict that further "ectoparasite" plagues could also be brought back as part of the surprising plague-haunted medievalism of the emerging global city.

Maybe they're biblical after all, with Toronto's outcasts bearing open sores and enduring nightly torture as a sign of divine displeasure with our Sodom-like social sins, their suffering the precursor of a plague that will ravage us all, including the saintly elite in their "detached single-family homes."

Or maybe, as many entomologists have suggested, it's just because we no longer use strong enough chemical pesticides to keep traditional vermin down. The ecological caution that allows malaria mosquitoes to flourish has also made the world safer for less harmful but still disgusting bedbugs.

But there is no question that the plague is on, with major outbreaks occurring all over the United States, from five-star hotels in New York City to hospital operating rooms in New Mexico and around the world. "This isn't just a Toronto problem," Mr. Myles said. "This is a worldwide resurgence in bedbugs."

It was scarcely imaginable until it happened, according to Mr. Myles, who became well known a decade ago as a result of his pioneering research on termite control. "I've been the urban entomologist here for 13 years and have never received a call on bedbugs until two months ago," he said.

Indeed, the bug man confessed that he had never even seen a live Cimex lectularius before. Now, they're everywhere. "What shocked me is how fast they scamper around," he said. "They are faster than termites."

Both users and officials of the burgeoning hostels have been quietly dealing with the bedbug resurgence for two years, according to Captain Ken Percy of the Salvation Army, which operates a number of shelters in Toronto. "We've been fighting an ongoing battle," he said, washing all bedclothes, sheets and blankets daily and fumigating when necessary.

The church officer in charge of the large Maxwell Meighen shelter on Sherbourne Street has spent close to $20,000 on pesticides over the past two years to curb a persistent bedbug infestation, according to Capt. Percy. The army is holding its own and even gaining in the battle, he insisted. But even an optimist can't deny the obvious limits on sanitation in homeless shelters, where the human tide that collects in the lowest gutters of a neglectful city surges through the grates twice a day, every day.

"Unfortunately some of the poor souls who come to us for aid may carry bedbugs," Capt. Percy said. The shelters have laundries -- hot water kills bedbugs -- but no means to enforce their use. "We can't force anybody to do anything," he said. "We're there to provide people with a bed for the night and that's it."

But others, perhaps, can take more vigorous measures to stop the spread of bedbugs out of the shelters and throughout the city as a whole. Although it will probably take an embarrassing incident at an expensive hotel to force a proper response, the U of T bulletin has certainly caught the attention of local public-health officials.

Before the report was released, health department spokesmen insisted that bedbugs were "not a public-health issue." Mr. Myles disagreed, criticizing the lack of public-health response to the problem in his report. By week's end, senior officials of the department had joined an ad hoc committee to deal with the shelter infestations.

"We acknowledge that it can be a significant personal-health issue," said Dr. Karl Kabasele, associate medical officer of health. Moreover, "it's not a problem that's confined."

All agree that repeated bites from bedbugs induce insomnia, anxiety, even trauma in those whose sleeping quarters are infested. Bites turn into persistent itchy welts that can easily become infected and develop into severe skin conditions. "This psychological torment alone should justify public-health concern," the report said.

But there is also some evidence that bedbugs have already become or could become carriers of human diseases, according to Mr. Myles. The problem is that few scientists research bedbugs because they were thought to have been virtually eradicated from polite (i.e. our) society by the 1950s.

But the means to repeat that impressive pre-environmental killing spree have since been eradicated themselves. Pest-control companies are having "a dickens of a time" controlling bedbugs with means currently at their disposal, according to Mr. Myles.

In years to come we may credit bedbugs, lice and fleas for the return of such toxic chemicals as DDT. For now, they're a compelling reminder that squalor in the global city is not as easily contained as the sanitary elite may like.

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