Rising Bed Bug Infestations Can Be Beat, but Some Won't Like the Plan

"Bed bug populations have seen a resurgence for at least the past couple decades."

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In February, an Oklahoma courthouse shut down after a lawyer came in swarming with so many bed bugs that they fell off of his jacket. His was an extreme case of an increasingly common problem. In the United States, bed bug infestations have been on the rise since the early 2000s, and tenants, landlords, and lawmakers alike are itching to find a solution. New research in PNAS supports a controversial strategy that building owners aren’t likely to be happy about.

In a bed bug-infested housing market, it’s more important than ever for renters to know whether the home they’re moving into is clean. But admitting that a building has bed bugs hurts landlords, causing a ripple effect that could bring down property and neighborhood values. In the new paper, a team led by University of Pennsylvania VMD-Ph.D. candidate Sherrie Xie make the case that landlords should just accept their losses and disclose this information because it’ll make them money in the long run.

“Bed bug populations have seen a resurgence for at least the past couple decades,” Xie tells Inverse. “No one knows for sure why this has occurred, but contributing factors probably include increased pesticide resistance, increased restrictions on the use of certain pesticides like DDT, and increased international travel.”

Her team built a mathematical model of bed bug infestation dynamics and renter behavior to calculate how much it actually costs landlords to tell the truth. Doing so seems to lead to fewer renters in the short-term, but by the fifth year their honesty pays off.

“Our study found that disclosure policies can decrease the rate of bed bug infestations when they are properly enforced, meaning that landlords are made to follow the rules,” says Xie.

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Bed bug infestations can be curbed by disclosure policies, but getting landlords on board won't be easy.

How to Convince a Reluctant Landlord

If landlords are up front about bed bugs in a building, they’ll see a lot more vacancies. From a public health perspective, that’s a good thing: Because bed bugs spread when people carry them from one apartment to another or when they creep into neighboring rooms in a building to prey on new humans, more vacancies means fewer opportunities for them to spread.

Eventually, the team writes, disclosure leads to a “semi-quarantine” state, which means fewer infestations overall. As the bed bugs die over time, the benefits eventually outweigh the costs: not only will renters eventually come back, but landlords will wind up spending less on exterminators.

Of course, five years is a long time. Though it’s horrible for renters, it’s easy to understand why landlords are cagey about bed bugs. Hopefully, evidence from studies like this one will convince policymakers to enforce disclosure laws in cities.

“It is a classic collective action problem because we would all be better off if all landlords acted according to disclosure laws, but any given landlord may be reluctant to comply,” says Xie. Thus, instead of relying on each landlord to act in the best interest of the group, we think state and local governments considering disclosure legislation should carefully consider how best to enforce these policies.”

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New York City has disclosure laws about bed bugs.

How to End Bed Bugs For Good

Currently, only a handful of metropolises have disclosure laws: New York City, San Francisco, Mason City in Iowa, and all of Connecticut and Maine. The team point out that disclosure policies tend to exist in places where there’s a high demand for rentals — beggars can’t be choosers in these renters’ markets, so “the immediate economic risk to landlords is likely to be low.” In contrast, landlords can get really screwed by a disclosure policy in less busy markets, where renters can be more choosy.

While policymakers work with public health officials to find the best way to keep bed bugs under control, scientists will keep an eye out for another factor not considered in this study: bed bug resistance.

‘Today’s bed bug populations are resistant to many commonly used insecticides, so infestations cannot be effectively treated with chemicals alone,” says Xie. In addition to pesticides, she recommends an approach called “integrative pest management,” which involves non-chemical methods like using high heat to clean clothes, vacuuming bugs, steaming them, and filling in crevices where bugs might hide.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, there are 21 states with some sort of law applying to bed bugs. Some have been around “for many years,” but nine have only had them since 2005. As bed bug infestations become more common, states may need to step up their extermination game.

Ultimately, Xie says, to curb the spread of bed bugs we must get better at treating infestations. Using disclosure guidelines to enforce a quarantine is one way; finding a way to get landlords to deal with infestations rapidly is another. “Subsidies for bed bug treatment, if such a measure were possible,” says Xie, “would have a powerful impact as they would make treatment more affordable and accessible.”