Bed bugs…that scourge of living in New York City. They could be anywhere: festering in your apartment, hiding in your office space, or even lurking in your theater seat. But there’s a new indication that the frenzy may be slowing down. For the first time in nearly a decade, the number of bed bug complaints in rental housing is leveling off. But, as Paul Smith reports, don’t stop checking your sheets just yet.
SMITH: Something nasty awaited Dustin Wilson when he moved to Bushwick a few years ago.
DUSTIN WILSON: One morning I woke up and my roommate was cutting up garbage bags and electric tape and putting them round his mattress. I was like, what are you doing? He was like oh we have bed bugs.
SMITH: Wilson’s originally from Texas. He didn’t even know bed bugs existed until they occupied his loft. His housemates weren’t too concerned. It’s just a Brooklyn way of life, they told him. But Wilson was pretty perturbed.
WILSON: My mind was infested with bed bugs. I felt uncomfortable all the time. I always wondered the shirt, did I just wash this shirt? Is this shirt laundered enough?
SMITH: In 2009, at the height of New York’s bed bug frenzy, a city survey concluded there were 400,000 cases of bed bugs. That survey hasn’t been repeated. But this week, new data indicated a decrease in housing code violations involving bed bugs last year. The same report from the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development showed the number of complaints to the 311 line continued to rise, although the numbers are leveling off.
Tim Wong, who works for a pest control company in China Town, says he doesn’t see any signs of demand for exterminators dropping.
TIM WONG: We’ve been getting more calls. The complaint number being down is misleading.
SMITH: Bed bugs aren’t new: we’ve been battling them for centuries. Ralph Maestre, the Queens-based author of ‘The Bed Bug Book” blames the Europeans for bringing them here.
MAESTRE: Back in the 1920s approximately 1 out of every 4 Americans encountered or knew someone that had bed bugs.
SMITH: Maestre is also an exterminator and encounters as much creature fear as critters. Some of his clients, often bed bug free, are convinced they’re infested.
MAESTRE: Sometimes we direct them to professionals to help them with the mental anguish that they’re going through.
SMITH: Some bed bug professionals live in kennels. Champ, a beagle pointer, has performed over 5,000 inspections across the city. Danny Camacho an exterminator of Tim Wong’s pest control company, trains Champ to keep his nose sharp for bugs.
CAMACHO: Come on, let’s go to work.
SMITH: Champ sniffs, raises his paw and strikes the chair where a vial of bed bugs is hidden.
CAMACHO: Good boy. You’re such a good boy. Oh you’re such a good boooyyy.
SMITH: When Champ finds the bug, he gets a treat. Camacho doesn’t see work drying up anytime soon.
CAMACHIO: Bed bugs are not getting on the planes, going to another country. They stay in New York.
SMITH: Like rats, roaches and fleas, bed bugs, he says, are part of the city’s woodwork.
Paul Smith, Columbia Radio News