By Peter Criscione
‘Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite’- that saying has taken on a whole new meaning for a Brampton woman and her two young daughters.
For nine months, Patricia and her family were terrorized by these unsightly creatures measuring three to five millimetres or about the size an apple seed.
“Don’t let the bed bugs bite? I thought it was just a saying. I had no idea…” said Patricia, whose last name has been withheld.
Bed bugs are blood-sucking insects that enjoy feasting on exposed skin.
They are shy, meaning they feed primarily at night, and are efficient hitchhikers, usually transported in luggage, clothing, beds, furniture and even shoes. And while there is no evidence that bed bugs can transmit disease, the effects of being bitten are anything but pleasant.
Local irritation, inflammation, allergic reactions, itchiness and dermatitis are just some of the effects of the bed bug bite.
Following a marital breakdown, Patricia and her daughters, ages three and six, moved out of their home and into a rental unit in the A section of Bramalea.
On the surface the house seemed perfect.
It was a semi detached bungalow in an older area with lots of mature trees and a large backyard, more than enough room for the girls to play in.
After an intense search for a suitable place to live, Patricia thought herself lucky to land, in her words, “a fantastic, clean home, with a beautiful kitchen.”
But it didn’t take long before Patricia’s world was turned upside down by this infamous pest.
“After our first night sleeping at the house, my youngest woke up with red itchy spots. I thought ‘great, she has the chicken pox’ But they weren’t chicken pox,” said Patricia, recounting the ordeal that her family endured for nine months in 2011.
Bed bugs have become a big problem in recent years, as these critters are responsible for a mass infestation of hotels, apartments, hospitals, shelters and homes across the continent.
A likely reason for the bed bug problem is basic science, according to Paul Callanan, director of environmental health with Peel Public Health. Bed bugs follow, like any other living organism, ups and downs in biologic cycles, so that may have something to do with it.
But infestations, Callanan added, also coincide with a change in the pesticides used to treat insects like bed bugs.
In the past, pesticides contained some nasty stuff, but concerns over exposure to hazardous chemicals prompted a switch to less harmful products.
Pesticides aren’t as potent as they used to be and that has impacted the ability to adequately control this problem, Callanan said.
“A lot of pesticides use to have DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) in them. It’s not a good idea to use those pesticides where people live,” Callanan said.
Peel Public Health is not directly responsible for bed bugs because they don’t transmit disease and are not linked to poor hygiene.
That means inspectors won’t generally go out to investigate complaints.
The health unit’s primary role is to provide advice on treating bed bugs and has been working on a number of education initiatives including posting information on the Region’s website www.peelregion.ca.
Last November, Peel Health hosted a hosted a bed bug symposium for caseworkers, tenants, landlords and property managers seeking tips on how to identify and treat bed bug infestations.
About 200 people showed up.
Callanan said Peel has ramped up its education program as a result of “growing community concern.”
Peel Public Health is one of several health departments to receive one-time funding ($439,989) from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to educate residents on how to prevent and handle bed bug infestations.
A staff report to Regional Council last week showed the number of calls and complaints related to bedbugs increased since 2009.
In 2010, Peel Living, the department that administers some 70 social housing sites in Peel, reported Regional buildings and shelters averaged 31 complaints about bed bugs per month.
And last year, these same facilities averaged 46 complaints per month.
Complaints from private dwellings, jumped from 136 in 2009 to 210 in 2010, before dipping slightly to 196 in 2011.
Since bed bugs are not regarded as a public health hazard, and inspections aren’t conducted, Callanan said there is no concrete data available to paint a true picture of how big the problem is in the wider community.
Complaints fielded by Peel are “an indication of community concern rather than verified bed bug infestations,” the report to Council states.
But Callanan, like many public health officials, is certain the problem is widespread.
“I don’t doubt there are more bed bugs in the community,” he said.
It took Patricia weeks to figure out what kind of menace she was dealing with.
A visit to the doctor yielded little results. The doctor told Patricia to just keep an eye on the problem and go back if it got worse.
And it did.
The red, itchy spots that Patricia described as “big red raised circles” continued to appear, and there were a lot more of them.
“My little one woke from her nap, complaining she was itchy. Looking at her tummy, sides and back she was covered in clusters of red bumps. They looked like bites to me so I went to check her
bed and sure enough I found a big fat red bug, red from all the blood it had sucked out of my baby, while she slept. There it was walking on the sheet, it was nothing I had seen before. I grabbed it
with a tissue and put it into a baggie, then went to the computer to look up ‘blood sucking bugs’ and there it was (on the Internet page)— a bed bug.”
Sleep became an ordeal for the family.
Her children were too terrified to sleep alone and would huddle with Patricia at night, while she stayed up holding a flashlight inspecting the bed for bugs.
“We were all sleep-deprived, tired, on edge,” she said.
No matter how often, or how much, she cleaned the problem only seemed to intensify.
Patricia suffered bites, too.
Her legs, arms, neck and chest became a tapestry of welts and scars.
And the more she got bit the worse the reactions got.
“It hurt. My whole body would just ache. The skin would scar where the bites were,” said Patricia of the anaphylactic reactions she experienced, which is a severe, life-threatening allergic response that can affect multiple organ-systems of the body.
Patricia finally contacted the landlord who then hired a pest control specialist to spray the house.
In preparation, Patricia had to empty out closets and dresser drawers.
All clothes, sheets, bedspreads, linens, curtains they had to be washed in hot water with Clorox 2, then dried for minimum one hour before being bagged and tied tightly so bugs could not get in.
Also, furniture had to be moved away from walls, beds stripped and taken apart, bookcases emptied, toys washed, disinfected and bagged.
Despite their efforts the pesticides didn’t work and over the next few months the house would be sprayed four more times — at a substantial cost — without success.
The bed bugs had taken a firm hold on the house and eventually there was nothing left for Patricia to do except leave.
She even left furniture and much of their belongings behind in order to avoid the risk of infesting her new home.
In addition to the physical discomfort, which caused her to miss a great deal of work, Patricia described her ordeal as emotionally and mentally draining.
She felt an overwhelming sense of alienation.
Bed bugs are an exposure pest and are not necessarily associated with living conditions.
Bed bugs can happen to anyone, anywhere.
But there is a social stigma attached to bed bugs, which often prevents people from reporting bed bugs in their home or apartment.
Rather than try to place blame it is more important to take action, say sisters Katherine and Karen Cawley who operate Pest Preventers in downtown Brampton.
It was firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to experience a bed bug infestation that prompted the Cawley sisters to launch their business.
After having bought her first house, a four-bedroom bungalow, Karen and her family began noticing bites and soon discovered the culprits were bed bugs.
Same story unfolded for Katherine who encountered the same issue soon after moving into an apartment building.
Both recall how embarrassed they felt initially and understand why some people would be reluctant to share their stories openly.
Landlords and property managers are especially squeamish when it comes the bed bug issue, Katherine said.
But the bed bug problem going away anytime soon and the Cawleys stressed the importance of understanding the potential risks.
By Peter Criscione