Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite!
- Why are bedbugs such a problem in New York City?
- How can I tell if there are bedbugs in my apartment?
- How do bedbugs get into an apartment in the first place?
- Why are bedbugs so hard to get rid of?
- Forget the stigma — bedbugs are not anyone’s “fault”
The information contained on this web page does not constitute legal advice and must not be used as a substitute for the advice of a lawyer qualified to give advice on legal issues pertaining to housing. For more, visit our page on Finding a lawyer.
This information pertains only to tenants living in New York City.
Many of your rights depend on the type of housing you live in or your type of tenancy. You may be subject to different laws and have different sets of rights than even neighbors in your own building. Learn which rights and responsibilities apply to you.
- My landlord says that I’m the one responsible for getting rid of the bedbugs in my apartment. Is that true?
- What will I have to do to get ready for the exterminator?
- Is the landlord liable for costs related to replacing property that I have to throw away because of bedbugs, or for costs related to laundering and dry-cleaning clothing infested with bedbugs?
- In the case of elderly or disabled people who are unable to move furniture around, is the landlord obligated to pay for workers to move furniture and/or other belongings to prepare for the extermination?
- What if everyone living in my apartment has to move out for a few days or even longer while extermination takes place? Does the landlord have to pay for relocation costs?
- Is bedbug extermination an “emergency” that a landlord can force a tenant to give access for on short notice, or is it a “normal” issue that requires typical negotiation with tenants about access?
- Can I use a bedbug infestation as a defense in a nonpayment case?
- Can I break my lease and move from the apartment because of bedbugs?
Issues with Extermination
- What if the extermination company the landlord hires isn’t competent, and I’m pretty sure that the methods they’re using won’t ever solve the problem?
- What should I be on the lookout for with insecticides?
- What can I do if I believe that the chemicals a company is using for extermination are dangerous or toxic to me or other people or pets in my apartment, either because they’re generally toxic or because they’re specifically dangerous to someone in the apartment owing to a preexisting condition?
- What happens if I just take matters into my own hands and hire a competent exterminator who uses environmentally friendly, nontoxic methods for bedbug eradication, instead of accepting the exterminator the landlord wants me to use?
- What if the landlord refuses to take care of the problem and I hire my own exterminator?
- What if the landlord refuses to take care of the problem and I can’t afford to hire my own exterminator or I don’t want to risk being taken to Housing Court in an eviction proceeding by withholding rent?
- What can I do if the bedbugs are coming from a neighboring apartment where the tenant refuses to allow extermination?
- Does the procedure change in the case of co-op neighbors?
- If there’s a bedbug infestation in a neighboring apartment where the bedbugs are being eliminated, can I request that the landlord take measures to make sure that no bedbugs come into my apartment?
- What can I do if I live in public housing?
Methods: What Works, What Doesn’t
- How to rid an apartment of bedbugs – what works, what doesn’t
- What nontoxic methods for eradicating bedbugs can be used?
- What about insecticides?
- How can I prevent a new infestation, or keep bedbugs from infesting my home in the first place?
- Shouldn’t there be a law to help us deal with the bedbug invasion?
Bedbugs in New York City Apartments
Bedbugs, the tiny, biting pests that have been tormenting sleepers for thousands of years, have become a common scourge in New York City. Research suggests that bedbugs originally preyed on bats in caves, and that they added human blood to their diet as soon as human beings began to move into the caves. After World War II, bedbugs all but disappeared from New York City, but in recent years, an enormous growth in global travel, changes in pest–control measures (the use of baits instead of residual sprays for cockroaches, for example), and the lack of general knowledge about bedbugs and how they spread have all contributed to a huge increase in bedbug infestations in New York and other cities around the world.
Common bedbugs (Cimex lectularius) are small, wingless insects that live on the blood of warm-blooded creatures. Although they can’t fly, they can run very fast. From rod-shaped white eggs that are only about 1/32nd of an inch (1 mm) long — which is about the thickness of a credit card—tiny translucent–whitish nymphs emerge, hungry for their first meal. Hungry bedbugs are flat seen from the side and oval when seen from above; after they’ve fed, their bodies swell up and get longer, and the blood they’ve taken in is visible inside their bodies — first bright red and then darkening to a brownish color.
The nymphs pass through five stages of growth in which they become larger versions of themselves, becoming a translucent-amber or straw color when hungry and shedding their skins (which are really a waxy outer skeleton, or exoskeleton) as they go; right after molting, they may appear paler and waxier.They need to have at least one blood meal to pass from one stage to the next, and usually reach adulthood in four to five weeks. Adult bugs are about 3/16ths to ¼ inch long. Over the course of her lifetime, an adult female may lay 200 to 500 eggs, sometimes at the rate of up to 4 or 5 a day; the eggs hatch in anywhere from 6 to 17 days, depending on temperature conditions. Average bedbug life expectancy is a few months to a year, longer in cooler temperatures — though obviously, we the people hope to cut it much shorter.
Modern cities, with their high population densities, controlled indoor temperatures, and infinite number of cracks, crevices, and stuff to hide in, are an ideal environment for bedbugs. They’ve been found everywhere in urban environments — in commercial spaces, subways, theaters, cars, and even courtrooms, to name just a few.
Bedbugs are predators rather than parasites, so they do not live on people. They are usually nocturnal, and feed every few nights if they can. If an infestation is very large, they may also try to feed during the day, but because it takes them anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes to get a full meal, they prefer a sleeping host. If they’re disturbed while feeding or aren’t getting a good blood flow, they may take more than one bite. While they’re biting, bedbugs inject anticoagulants into their victims to keep the blood flowing; most people have an allergic reaction to the anticoagulant, which causes itching welts to appear on their skin. A significant number of people have no reaction to bedbug bites at all, and this can make it possible for a bedbug infestation to grow quite large before it’s detected — so if you’re in a relationship and your partner is complaining of insect bites while you remain blissfully itch-free, you should take those complaints seriously.
Bedbugs are not known to carry any diseases, but scratching the bites increases the irritation and itching and can lead to infection. Bedbugs do cause considerable psychological harm, described in a 2009 report by the Toronto Bed Bug Project Steering Committee as “high levels of anxiety, stress, depression, sleep deprivation, insomnia, constant vigilance, and an incredible preoccupation with bedbugs, sometimes resulting in psychological trauma.”
If you react to bedbug bites, your first clue that there are bedbugs in your apartment is likely to be the appearance of multiple bites that begin to appear and itch sometime during the day. Because different people react differently to being bitten by bedbugs, you can’t necessarily identify what bit you from the way the bites look and feel. Bedbug bites range from small red pinpricks to large inflamed welts, and often resemble mosquito, spider, or mite bites. Bedbugs tend to feed in groups and sometimes take more than one bite nearby where they started feeding, so unless you have swarms of mosquitoes in your environment, multiple bites are likely to be indicative of bedbugs.
Because bedbugs like to cluster together and prefer to stay close to their food source, you may be able to find them in and around a bed they’ve infested, especially in the seams and tufts of mattresses, in the box spring, around the headboard or footboard, or in the bed’s structure. They often leave evidence of their presence where you can see it—tiny, dark-red feces, eggs, dead bedbugs, and the cast-off skins that nymphs leave behind when they grow to a larger size. Bedbugs that have been crushed during the night by a restless sleeper leave bloodstains on the sheets. You can get a good idea of what the bugs look like at their various growth stages and levels of infestation here and here (video).
Nevertheless, because of the bugs’ extremely small size (ranging down to almost impossible to see with the naked eye in their early nymph stages) and ability to hide in the tiniest cracks and crevices, a visual inspection may not yield any clues, especially if the infestation is small. The sticky traps some exterminators use to catch stray bugs in order to verify their presence are not always effective, because bedbugs are as likely to crawl under them as into them. You may want to try an interceptor that traps bedbugs as they’re crawling onto or off of the legs of a piece of furniture; these are usually specially designed concentric plastic cups with talcum powder or diatomaceous earth inside, which can trap bugs going in both directions.
Dogs that have been trained to sniff out bedbugs, together with handlers who are skilled at making visual inspections, are generally considered to be an effective method of detection where the bugs aren’t visible to you, though even then there may be false positives or negatives. You should make sure that both dog and handler are highly trained and skilled, and that a different dog is used for each follow-up visit.
Bedbugs are spread in a variety of ways. Hitchhiking on suitcases, backpacks, clothing, bedding, or furniture is probably the most common way they enter an apartment. They can also move on their own from one apartment to another, especially vertically along a line of apartments as well as next door or across the hall, which is why it’s important to make sure that neighboring apartments are inspected, and treated if necessary, when a known bedbug infestation is being eradicated. Once they enter a new space, bedbugs track down their prey (that’s you) by following the trail of carbon dioxide that human beings breathe out; when they get closer, body heat guides them the rest of the way.
Bedbugs are especially hard to get rid of because they multiply so quickly and because they’re so good at hiding during the day. Their small, flattened bodies make it easy for them to disappear into bedding, mattresses, box springs, the structure of the bed, out-of-the-way cracks and clothing folds, electrical outlets and wiring conduits, electronic devices, papers — bedbugs like to congregate in clutter — and all kinds of furniture, as well as under loose wallpaper and behind wall hangings. Usually at least 70 percent or more of an infestation stays within the bed structure and bedding, but as the size of an infestation increases, the adult females will start moving away to lay their eggs, and bedbugs will travel as far as 20 feet to and from a food source. This is why just getting rid of infested furniture and bedding won’t always solve the problem — in fact, it may just move the bedbugs around in your building and neighborhood and make the problem worse. Most furniture can be made bedbug–free with effective extermination methods.
Obviously, multiple dwellings offer bedbugs a perfect environment, since the bugs can hide in the walls while one unit is cleaned and then appear in another, or return to reinfest rooms or apartments. Hotels traditionally have been especially problematic: their populations are transient, bedding is often carried from one room to another, and while one infested unit might be cleaned, it’s rare for the entire hotel to be shut down so that all the rooms can be cleaned at once. College dormitories, nursing homes, and shelters for homeless people are also extremely prone to bedbug infestations, for similar reasons.
Bedbugs can go for months without feeding, which means they can lie low and wait patiently if an apartment is empty for a while. Some strains of bedbugs have developed resistance to pesticides; according to the Toronto Bed Bug Project Steering Committee’s report, by the 1950s it was “widely recognized that bedbugs across the world had become resistant to DDT.” In any case, very few pesticides kill the eggs, which means that more than one treatment may be necessary if pesticides are being used for eradication.
The apartment-by-apartment treatment favored by many landlords can also cause a bedbug problem to persist throughout a building. When an infested apartment is being treated, all adjoining apartments and even apartments across the hall should be inspected, and extermination should be carried out in them as necessary; certainly the landlord should be taking measures, such as caulking and sealing, to prevent the spread of bedbugs from one apartment to another.
Generally, a professional exterminator will have to be called in to get rid of all of the bedbugs and prevent a reinfestation, and you will have to do a lot of work both to prepare for the extermination and to make sure that the bedbugs stay away. It is not recommended that you try to get rid of them by yourself, but there are some things, outlined below, that you can do to mitigate the problem while you’re waiting for the exterminator, if you have the kind of landlord who is likely to make you wait—or if you have no alternative to the do-it-yourself method. Most people with a lot of experience in the field agree that there’s no “magic bullet” — there’s no one pesticide or technique that will solve the problem by itself.
And by “lots of company,” we don’t just mean the six-legged kind. Major bedbug infestations are occurring everywhere, including the wealthiest neighborhoods, and they have nothing to do with being “dirty.” Bedbugs don’t care whether your house is totally unkempt or as neat as a new pin: they’re only interested in the presence of human beings to feed on.
Many people put off getting help with a bedbug problem because of the stigma; it’s like the old schoolyard bugaboo about having “cooties” (although cooties are actually body lice, which are really a rarity) — the fear of getting them from the person with the problem can be pretty intense. But you’d be surprised at how many other people have bedbugs, or have had them, so forget the stigma and get help immediately! Given the rapidity with which the bugs reproduce, every day you put off getting help will only multiply the severity of the problem.
As soon as you learn that you have bedbugs, you need to advise your landlord of the problem — in writing if you don’t get an immediate response by other means (send by certified mail, return receipt requested, and keep the receipt with a copy of your letter). Also, you should inform your neighbors that you have a bedbug problem. If they don’t already know that they have a problem of their own — and they may need encouragement to address it immediately — they should be checking to see whether they also have bedbugs, or taking steps to keep the bugs out of their apartments. And you may need to organize your building so that you can work as a group to put more pressure on the landlord to take care of the problem (see “How to Organize a Tenants’ Association”).
My landlord says that I’m the one responsible for getting rid of the bedbugs in my apartment. Is that true?
No, it is not! For tenants in New York, the right to a bedbug-free environment is included in the city’s housing and maintenance code, Subchapter 2, Article 4, which specifically names bedbugs in the list of insects the landlord is legally obligated to eradicate. The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) lists bedbugs as a Class B violation, which means that they are considered hazardous and that the landlord has 30 days to correct the problem. The landlord must eradicate the infestation and keep the affected units from getting reinfested.
If your landlord refuses to take the necessary steps, you can file a complaint with the city department of Housing Preservation and Development (call 311) or take the owner to Housing Court in an HP action; you can also file a complaint with the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (if you are a rent-regulated tenant), but this can be time-consuming and may not be as effective in getting relief. As with any problem you have concerning repairs or services, in addition to calling the managing agent or speaking with the superintendent, it’s important to notify the landlord or managing agent of the condition in writing (send by certified mail, return receipt requested, and save a copy of your letter with the receipt), and let the owner and/or manager know what steps you expect them to take.
The exterminator will let you know what steps you have to take in advance of extermination — and you should follow those instructions to the letter. Usually, it will involve dry-cleaning or washing and double-drying all bedding, clothing, and linens; some items that can’t be washed, such as woolens and luggage, can be put directly into a hot dryer for 30 minutes rather than sent out to the dry cleaner. You need to determine whether infested furniture can be cleaned and treated or whether you have to discard it. If you discard infested furniture, seal it in plastic and clearly label it as bedbug-infested before taking it out of your apartment. You should also take steps to make infested furniture unusable — such as ripping the fabric — so that people are less likely to bring it into their homes. Just hauling an unwrapped mattress out to the curb can scatter bedbugs throughout your building — which means they’ll soon be back in your apartment. All items discarded because they’re infested with bedbugs should also be kept out of common storage areas, unless they’re sealed in plastic.
Is the landlord liable for costs related to replacing property that I have to throw away because of bedbugs, or for costs related to laundering and dry-cleaning clothing infested with bedbugs?
Generally, the landlord is only liable for property damages and out-of-pocket costs when you can show that there was negligence on the landlord’s part — that the landlord didn’t take reasonable steps to eliminate bedbugs. This could include a situation where the landlord knew that there was an infestation in a neighboring apartment or apartments and failed to take appropriate steps to stop the infestation from spreading into your apartment. If you have proof that the original infestation or an ongoing infestation is the result of the landlord’s negligence — that the problem was caused by the landlord’s failure to act in a reasonable manner to address the bedbug problem — then you might have a claim for compensation for out-of-pocket costs and property damages related to bedbugs.
In the case of elderly or disabled people who are unable to move furniture around, is the landlord obligated to pay for workers to move furniture and/or other belongings to prepare for the extermination?
Landlords take the position that it is the tenant’s obligation to do this work or to pay someone to do it for them. Tenants take a risk by not doing the work themselves, since they can be held liable for failing to comply with the protocols for extermination. However, where the tenant is simply unable to do the work him- or herself — the tenant is physically unable to do the work and economically unable to pay someone else to do it — the tenant should make a request to the landlord in writing — with an explanation — that the landlord have its employees assist the tenant, since packing, etc., is part of the “work” required to eliminate bedbugs. Adult Protective Services will help some elderly tenants with preparation work; for information about this, call 311. There are commercial companies that will do the preparation for a bedbug extermination, but they can be very expensive.
What if everyone living in my apartment has to move out for a few days or even longer while extermination takes place? Does the landlord have to pay for relocation costs?
Most landlords probably won’t pay temporary relocation costs voluntarily. Trying to recover these costs — or trying to get the landlord to relocate you while the apartment is being exterminated—will probably require a court proceeding, and there’s no guarantee that the court would grant the relief; it all depends on the circumstances and the facts of the case. Remember, though, that if you move out while the eradication is being carried out in your apartment, you must make sure that you do not bring any bedbugs with you — which means that you must take the necessary steps to make your clothing and luggage bedbug-free by laundering them and/or putting them in a hot dryer before you pack.
Is bedbug extermination an “emergency” that a landlord can force a tenant to give access for on short notice, or is it a “normal” issue that requires typical negotiation with tenants about access?
You must give a landlord access to your apartment to take measures to get rid of bedbugs. If you have a lease, it will in all likelihood set forth the notice requirements for access. Unless you have a lease that specifically addresses access and bedbugs, bedbug infestation is not an emergency that allows access without notice — it is a Class B violation that allows the landlord 30 days to correct — so the landlord should be notifying you ahead of time that it needs access to your apartment to inspect for bedbugs or exterminate. Nevertheless, you delay giving access at your own risk: if there are bedbugs, you should be acting in a reasonable manner in giving access, and you should cooperate with preparation for extermination. Bedbugs reproduce at such a rapid rate that every day of delay means that you (and potentially your neighbors) have to suffer through a worsening infestation.
Yes, you can. Housing Court has awarded rent abatements for bedbug infestations. But you should be prepared to document the infestation, the notice that you gave to the landlord of the infestation, the steps that you took to prepare the apartment for extermination where relevant, and all steps that the landlord took, if any, to get rid of the bedbugs. If you are thinking about withholding rent to force the landlord to exterminate the bedbugs, you should know that because court records are obtained by “tenant screening bureaus” that then sell them to landlords, you will be placed on a blacklist for future rentals, could have your credit score damaged for 20 years if you agree to a stipulation that includes a judgment — even if you win the case — or be evicted if you have not saved the money to cover all the rent that is due and owing if the judge does not find in your favor.
You must establish that the bedbug infestation constructively evicted you from your apartment to be legally entitled to break your lease because of bedbugs. Whether a bedbug infestation amounts to a constructive eviction depends upon the extent to which the infestation interferes with your life and/or deprives you of the use of your home. If you break your lease, you risk the possibility of the landlord suing you for the rent due for the remainder of the lease term and any other damages that the landlord may be entitled to under the law and/or the lease — and if the landlord sues you, it will be up to the Court to decide whether the bedbug infestation was so bad as to amount to a constructive eviction, and therefore allow you to break your lease. Bear in mind that if you move out without making sure that all the possessions you take with you are bedbug-free, you will just be taking the problem with you.
What if the extermination company the landlord hires isn’t competent, and I’m pretty sure that the methods they’re using won’t ever solve the problem?
This can be a tough call. If you refuse to let the landlord’s exterminator do the work, then you may be accused of being the problem. Generally in court cases involving contractors of any kind, judges in Housing Court will say that that you need to let the landlord use the company it picks, and when the work isn’t done properly, you have to return to court and complain. The best practice is probably to document what the company is doing, show that what it’s doing isn’t working, and try to compel the landlord to get a new company that will employ better methods.
Insecticides are highly toxic chemicals, so you should educate yourself about a particular product before using it or allowing an exterminator to use it. This is particularly important when trying to eradicate bedbugs, since people—especially children, who are most susceptible to toxins—spend a lot of time in bedrooms and in bed. For information about insecticide components and their dangers, look at Web sites like the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition or the Natural Resources Defense Council. You should also bear in mind that most pesticides don’t kill bedbug eggs, making multiple treatments necessary. Some insecticides are repellant to bedbugs and may simply cause them to scatter, and since most kill only on contact, a bedbug deep in a crack or crevice may not get a lethal dose.
NEVER use insecticide “bombs” or “foggers”: instead of killing the bugs, which rarely come into contact with enough of the insecticide to be affected by it, the bombs only drive them further into their hiding places, and perhaps even into neighboring apartments.
What can I do if I believe that the chemicals a company is using for extermination are dangerous or toxic to me or other people or pets in my apartment, either because they’re generally toxic or because they’re specifically dangerous to someone in the apartment owing to a preexisting condition?
If you have a documented medical condition and/or a doctor advises against contact with certain chemicals, you should notify the landlord immediately, before an exterminator is sent to your apartment. If you don’t have a documented medical condition or advice from a doctor, toxicity becomes a more difficult issue. If you refuse to allow an exterminator in because of a general concern about chemicals, you do face the risk that the landlord may take legal action against you for failing to take the necessary steps to allow for the elimination of the bedbugs; continuing to harbor bedbugs where the landlord claims to be making a good-faith effort to get rid of them can lead to a holdover eviction proceeding for causing a nuisance.
What happens if I just take matters into my own hands and hire a competent exterminator who uses environmentally friendly, nontoxic methods for bedbug eradication, instead of accepting the exterminator the landlord wants me to use?
Taking matters into your own hands is essentially a question of assessing the risk. If you don’t cooperate with the landlord’s arrangements and your apartment continues to be infested, you’ll be at risk of legal proceedings against you, regardless of the reason for the ongoing infestation.
You can hire your own exterminator, but if you do, there is no guarantee that you will be compensated for the cost of the extermination. If you are compelled to hire your own exterminator because the landlord refused to do so, you can try deducting the cost of the extermination from your rent. Make certain, however, that you have written proof that you asked your landlord to hire an exterminator before you hired one yourself. If the landlord takes you to court, you can ask for a rent abatement for the time that elapsed between your notice to the landlord that there were bedbugs and the time that the bedbugs were eliminated, in addition to the cost of the extermination — and you may very well get it. You do risk not getting the abatement and having to pay the rent — and, as in the case of withholding rent to force the landlord to exterminate, your name will also be picked up by tenant screening companies and you might have trouble getting a new apartment in the future, as well as having your credit rating damaged. Make sure that any exterminator you hire is licensed and make sure to get references. You must have proof of payment to the exterminator, and you always need to make certain that you have saved the rent money — there is never a guarantee that the Court will find that you had the right to deduct the cost of extermination from the rent.
What if the landlord refuses to take care of the problem and I can’t afford to hire my own exterminator or I don’t want to risk being taken to Housing Court in an eviction proceeding by withholding rent?
You can bring an H.P. (Housing Part) proceeding against the landlord to compel him or her to exterminate. An H.P. proceeding is commenced in Housing Court. Once you file the proceeding, inspectors from HPD will inspect your apartment to verify the presence of bedbugs. HPD inspectors only accept evidence of actual bedbugs in the apartment or signs of their presence (bloodstained sheets, for example) as proof of a bedbug infestation — dead bedbugs or live bedbugs that you have in a container are not proof for HPD. HPD inspectors will not move furniture or bedding to look for bedbugs. You do not need an attorney to do an H.P. proceeding; there are attorneys from HPD in the courtroom in H.P. proceedings who will sometimes assist you. But these attorneys do not represent you.
If the landlord is refusing to exterminate the apartment and you want to try to work toward abating the problem of bedbugs on your own, you can talk with a reputable pest-control supplier to discuss purchasing products to help exterminate the bedbugs. (See below, “How to rid an apartment of bedbugs.”) You may still be able to deduct the costs of purchasing such products if you’ve notified the landlord of the problem in writing. If the landlord takes you to court, you can ask for a rent abatement for the time that elapsed between your written request to the landlord and the time when you were able to make your apartment bedbug-free, in addition to the costs of the extermination.
What can I do if the bedbugs are coming from a neighboring apartment where the tenant refuses to allow extermination?
The landlord is under a legal obligation to compel uncooperative tenants to allow for extermination in their apartments — through a court process if necessary. You could sue the neighbor for nuisance, and/or take the landlord to court to compel the landlord to exterminate in the neighbor’s apartment.
Co-op owners have the same obligations to each other that tenant neighbors have. Likewise, the landlord of a co-op (the cooperative corporation) has the same obligation to its tenants (proprietary lessees) as do other landlords. However, at least one Court has held that the co-op owner and not the co-op is responsible for paying for the cost of extermination. Whether the co-op or the proprietary lessee (tenant) is responsible for paying for the cost of extermination will depend on the terms of the proprietary lease.
If there’s a bedbug infestation in a neighboring apartment where the bedbugs are being eliminated, can I request that the landlord take measures to make sure that no bedbugs come into my apartment?
Yes, you can. A landlord has an obligation to keep your apartment bedbug free, so the landlord should take reasonable steps to keep bedbugs from coming into your apartment from a neighboring apartment. If your landlord isn’t automatically inspecting neighboring apartments and treating them if necessary or sealing up holes and cracks that provide access for bedbugs, you should make a written request that it do so. If the landlord doesn’t comply, and you get bedbugs, then you will have a stronger claim of negligence, potentially giving you the right to compensation for out-of-pocket damages and other related damages.
If you live in public housing, you can call the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) directly, at 718-707-7771. It’s especially important to communicate with your neighbors in public housing about the presence of bedbugs, because if NYCHA doesn’t address your problem promptly, you may get more prompt attention if all of the tenants who have bedbugs in their apartments join together to complain as a group.
To date, it appears that the most effective method for getting rid of bedbugs is extreme heat: bedbugs can’t survive temperatures over 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Exterminators use a variety of devices to heat a space and belongings that are infested, but — since even heating isn’t a “magic bullet” — this kind of treatment may need to be accompanied by the use of fumigants, along with high-power vacuuming and the application of insecticide powders in likely hiding places, followed by sealing all cracks, crevices, and openings around pipes or electrical conduits. This last procedure should be part of any eradication program — and is also useful for keeping away other pests, such as mice and cockroaches.
A bedbug-certified mattress encasement that can both trap bedbugs inside and prevent them from hiding in a mattress or box spring is indispensable for managing and preventing infestations. You may want to tape up the zipper. If you use less-expensive encasements that aren’t bedbug-certified, use two, put them on with the zippers facing in opposite directions, and tape both zippers.
The New York State Integrated Pest Management Program recommends three steps for getting rid of bedbugs: Find the bedbugs’ hiding places, clean those places thoroughly, and then make it hard for the bugs to get back in. As part of cleaning the hiding places, the IPM program recommends washing all bedding, rugs, and clothes in hot water, and drying them in a hot dryer to kill bugs living in these materials. Articles that can’t be washed but won’t melt can simply be put into a hot dryer for at least 30 minutes. There are also portable heating units that can be used to rid your possessions of bedbugs. Carefully clean or vacuum all surfaces in the room and all items that can’t be washed or put into a clothes dryer or heater; after vacuuming, seal the vacuum-cleaner bag in a plastic bag and dispose of it outdoors. Vacuuming should usually be repeated—bedbug eggs are usually stuck onto the surface where the female lays them, and may not be picked up on the first pass. To prevent the return of bugs, all cracks, crevices, and openings around pipes or electrical conduits should be sealed. If you’re following these steps yourself, however, you should be very careful to make sure that you’re actually eradicating bedbug clusters and not just breaking them up and sending them scurrying off elsewhere.
Cooling or freezing bedbugs doesn’t seem to be very effective. Cooling just slows down the bugs’ metabolism, which means they can live for astonishingly long periods of time without eating, and even bedbugs that have been frozen have been known to revive after they’ve thawed out. Techniques that freeze bedbugs instantly only work on contact — if there’s anything between the freezing substance and the bedbug, the bedbug will survive. Even something as insubstantial as a piece of paper between a bedbug and a freezing substance will allow the bedbug to live to bite another day — or night.
And it bears repeating: NEVER use “bombs” or “foggers.” They don’t work, and they can make the problem worse by driving the bugs further into their hiding places — or into a neighboring apartment, from which you may be fairly sure they’ll return to yours.
It often requires more than one visit from the exterminator to rid an apartment of bedbugs, so you can’t assume that your apartment and property are bedbug-free after a single extermination. Repeated rounds of treatment are not uncommon.
Heat is the most effective nontoxic method for eliminating bedbugs. Except for the portable devices for ridding smaller personal items of bedbugs, however, heat treatments can only be applied by a licensed exterminator. A number of sprays that are safe for children and pets will kill bedbugs on contact, but usually not their eggs. A 91-percent solution of rubbing alcohol, applied with a plant mister, will also kill bedbugs on contact, and if the eggs are sufficiently soaked in alcohol, it will kill them, too. However, alcohol is a fire hazard, and if you use it, you should be aware of the very real risks it entails.
Diatomaceous earth, which is marketed as a fine powder (make sure you get the kind that’s designed to kill bedbugs), is the fossilized remains of tiny crustaceans. It tends to be slow acting: when bedbugs and other insects come into contact with it, it damages their skins, causing them to dehydrate. You can use diatomaceous earth to fill cracks and crevices (you may want to seal it in), behind switch and outlet plates, or in some kinds of interceptors. Diatomaceous earth can cause serious health problems if you inhale too much of it, so it’s not a good idea to scatter diatomaceous earth around your apartment or on furniture.
You can also use barriers to bedbug travel to keep the bugs from getting into your bed or other furniture. Putting the legs of furniture into glass jars or metal cans is not as effective as has been popularly believed—bedbugs can climb up glass and metal and have been known to live on plastic items. You can coat the legs of furniture with petroleum jelly, or wrap them in double-sided carpet tape. Carpet tape can be strong enough to pull off paint or finish when removed, so you may want to put it on over a layer of masking tape that is the same width. Be sure to seal all cracks that might make it possible for the bedbugs to avoid the petroleum jelly or tape. Double-sided carpet tape tends to lose its stickiness over time, so you should check the tape regularly and replace as needed — and you may want to experiment with different brands.
You can make a nontoxic bedbug spray repellant by putting 5-10 drops
each of essential oils of peppermint, cloves, lavender, and eucalyptus
in a spray bottle, filling the bottle with water, and spraying liberally everywhere where there may be bugs and particularly where you don’t want them to be, such as in or nearby your bed, or in or on your luggage if you’re traveling. It won’t kill the bugs, but it will keep them away from you while traveling, between an exterminator’s treatments, or while a slow-acting substance that will kill them, like diatomaceous earth, is doing its work.
Make sure that bedclothes don’t touch the floor, and keep the bed and other furniture some distance away from the wall.
If you choose to use insecticides yourself, buy them only from a reputable extermination supply store and make sure that their use is explained to you by a salesperson. Follow all directions to the letter.
Of course, even if you follow every possible precaution, you can’t necessarily protect yourself from bedbugs, but here are some measures that might help:
NEVER bring discarded furniture into your apartment! Avoid rebuilt mattresses (which should be clearly labeled). A bedbug-certified mattress encasement is also a good preventive measure. You may want to tape up the zipper; if you use less-expensive encasements that aren’t bedbug-certified, use two, put them on with the zippers facing in opposite directions, and tape both zippers.
If you buy second-hand clothing, have it dry-cleaned or put it in a hot dryer for at least 30 minutes before bringing it into your apartment.
Be careful when you travel! Never put your suitcase or clothing onto the bed or into any furniture or closets in a hotel room. Put your suitcase on the luggage rack and live out of it. You may want to bring with you a plastic bag large enough to seal your suitcase up while you’re not using it. Check the mattress and box spring for signs of bedbugs. Even if you don’t see any signs of bedbugs, you may want to take other precautions: there are nontoxic sprays available in sizes approved for air travel that will keep bedbugs out of the bed while you’re in it. You can make a nontoxic bedbug spray repellant by putting 5-10 drops each of essential oils of peppermint, cloves, lavender, and eucalyptus in a spray bottle, filling the bottle with water, and spraying liberally — the bed, around the bed, and your luggage. The bottles the essential oils come in are small enough to meet TSA specifications, and you can leave the spray bottle empty until you need it.
If you’ve been in an environment where you think there may be bedbugs, there are things you can do when you get home to make sure they don’t move in with you. Strip as soon as you get in the door, put all your clothes into a plastic bag and seal it up until they can be washed and dried, and take a hot shower. If you think your suitcase may have become infested and it doesn’t have any components that might melt in a dryer, put it directly into a dryer for 30 minutes. Remember that a visual inspection of your clothes and luggage may not be sufficient — eggs and newly hatched nymphs are very difficult to see with the naked eye.
If you own a car, make sure that it’s kept bedbug-free, too. Your apartment can become infested, or reinfested, by bedbugs that have been joyriding in your car.
The measures outlined above for keeping bedbugs from getting back into your bed or your apartment once you’ve had an infestation will also work to keep them out in the first place — especially sealing up all cracks and crevices.
There are any number of changes that could be made in the way that state and city governments support landlords and tenants who are struggling with bedbug infestations. A bedbug advisory board issued a report in the summer of 2010; one of their recommendations was implemented when Governor David Paterson signed into law a provision requiring landlords to inform tenants if there has been a previous bedbug infestation in an apartment they are about to rent; another, the creation of a web portal, has been funded by the City Council. More recently, New York City has enacted a law requiring a landlord to notify HPD of past and present bedbug infestations, as well as notifying current tenants of the building’s bedbug history, either with their lease renewals or by posting the information in a prominent location in the building. If you want to remind the state and city governments that there is much more they can do about bedbugs — such as provide funds to help replace possessions that have had to be discarded and help small landlords with extermination costs, as well as coordination of services that can help tenants with the preparation work prior to an extermination — and that this is an urgent matter that requires immediate action, contact the office of the mayor, the office of the Speaker of the City Council, and your local City Council member, State Assembly member, and State Senator. To find out who your City Council member, State Assembly member, and State Senator are, and for contact information, click here.
For more information:
New York City Department of Health: call 311 and ask for the Health Department, or go to the Health Department fact sheet on bedbugs.
New York State Integrated Pest Management Program: 1-800-635-8356, or go to New York State’s fact sheet on bedbugs.