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Bedbugs have reappeared across the country in the last decade and they're making a dramatic comeback in New York City. Residents report five times as many infestations this year over last. The city is now trying to legislate them out of town.
NPR's Diantha Parker reports.
DIANTHA PARKER: At the end of a four hour hearing at New York City Hall, members of the public presented themselves as exhibit A basket cases. Pearl Edwards moved from Harlem to New Jersey to escape, but is still afraid.
Ms. PEARL EDWARDS: I go home on a bus to Jersey now, and when I sit on that bus I put plastic. People look at me like I'm crazy. I want to say to them yeah, you don't know what I went through. I don't want to transport anything to you.
PARKER: Bedbugs are small oval insects. They look like dark lentils with legs. They hide in furniture, live on blood and have been with us humans since we lived in caves. Researchers say they do not spread disease, but councilwoman Gail Brewer says she received hundreds of calls from constituents and is alarmed herself.
Ms. GAIL BREWER (New York City Council): My kids all had head lice. We dealt with it. I didn't freak out. With bedbugs, it's a mental health challenge.
PARKER: Brewer is sponsoring a bill to form a bedbug taskforce to deal with all complaints. One of her proposals is to ban the sale of old mattresses, which can carry bedbugs and their eggs. But the entomologists and exterminators at the hearing doubted that would help solve the problem. Bedbugs can hitchhike on almost anything people sell or give away.
Better they said to teach the facts. Bedbugs are very hard to kill. They don't care about the race or economic status of their victims and they can be found in the cleanest of homes. They can also walk into your apartment from someone else's.
That's what Katelyn Heller thinks happened. Her spotless sunny one bedroom in Queens is now bug free, but Heller still lives with the bugs in a way. She started the Bedbug Blog, inviting anyone with bugs to vent and commiserate.
Ms. KATELYN HELLER (Bedbug Blog): If you have questions I'll try to answer them. I'm not an expert. I'm not a social worker either but I can definitely give you support. The best thing that I ever saw on the Internet was someone who wrote an article for the New Yorker using the F-word seven times in the New Yorker and that was like finally somebody out there understands how I feel you know.
PARKER: Heller, who posts as the Katelynator, published photos of the giant, itchy welts she got nightly. She also shares how she got rid of the bugs, washing everything in hot water, sealing her clothes in plastic bags, replacing her bedding. Her building manager hired exterminators to spray pesticides in about 20 infested apartments at least three times. She says having the bugs on her was the worst part ,but not everyone feels that way.
Mr. LEWIS SORKIN (Entomologist): You know sometimes it's interesting to just watch them.
PARKER: Entomologist Lewis Sorkin testified at the hearing that it's unclear why bedbugs are thriving here in New York. He says it's possible a few infestations got out of hand and simply spread. Back at his day job at the Museum of Natural History, he keeps a colony of bedbugs in a small jelly jar on his desk. It's duck taped at both ends except for a circle of fine mesh in the lid. Once a month Sorkin upends the jar on his arm and lets the bedbugs eat.
Mr. SORKIN: Even feeding, if you have them under a microscope and you can watch the little personalities of the individual bedbugs looking for a spot on your skin that's better, poking around to find blood.
PARKER: Sorkin has fielded so many bedbug calls in the past 10 years that he considers them a specialty. He says they can live up to a year without eating, emerging from luggage or cracks in walls. This resilience may be part of why they've spread in other cities. San Francisco and Boston have racked up thousands of complaints, and a federal court in Chicago found a motel chain guilty of hiding its bedbug infestation from customers. New Yorkers reported 4,600 cases this year and those were the people willing to admit they had a problem.
Diantha Parker, NPR News, New York.
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