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«BATTLING BED BUGS IN CHICAGO: Making the Case for a Comprehensive Plan Midwest Pesticide Action Center (Formerly the Safer Pest Control Project) ...»

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Making the Case for a Comprehensive Plan

Midwest Pesticide Action Center

(Formerly the Safer Pest Control Project)

Funding Provided by: The Field Foundation of Illinois, Inc.

Update 2015: The State of Bed Bugs in the City of Chicago (see appendix)



Midwest Pesticide Action Center (MPAC) is an award winning nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the health risks and environmental impacts of pesticides and promoting safer pest control alternatives in Illinois. Since 1994, MPAC has been a leader in reducing pesticide use and has focused much of its efforts on reducing the impacts of pests and pesticides in Chicago’s low-income communities. In 2008, Midwest Pesticide Action Center began receiving an unprecedented number of calls from distressed residents looking for answers on how to deal with bed bugs. As an organization with expertise in Integrated Pest Management, MPAC quickly recognized the magnitude of this emergent problem and the critical need for educational materials, training, and community outreach.

In addition to the tenant and management calls that MPAC was receiving, we also started to receive numerous reports from Aldermanic offices across the city and from pest management professionals, confirming the spread of bed bugs across Chicago. In January 2009, we wrote a letter to Mayor Daley, highlighting the resurgence of bed bugs, recommending that the City create a comprehensive program to address the bed bug problem and offering our assistance. Meetings were called and an intergovernmental group was assembled, headed by Evelyn Diaz, the former Mayor’s deputy chief of staff. Through these meetings, held over the course of one year, MPAC helped the City recognize the magnitude of this escalating problem by providing a basic understanding of the bed bug issue and presenting the challenges the City would likely face in the near future. As a direct outcome of the meetings, MPAC provided training to the City’s building inspectors.

MPAC also helped coordinate, with funding from the Chicago Community Trust, the development of bed bug tracking maps, starting in January 2010. With assistance from the Chicago Department of Public Health, bed bug infestation reports received by 311 were collected and used to create GIS maps in order to better assess the spread of this pest. Midwest Pesticide Action Center also became the City’s delegate agency for bed bugs. Essentially, MPAC is now the on-the-ground “bed bug agency,” providing resources and training services to many Chicago audiences. The City now has a bed bug webpage that has MPAC’s fact sheets as the primary source of information. Many City agencies and departments have taken specific independent actions around bed bugs, but the City still lacks a comprehensive approach to dealing with this growing problem.



Bed bugs are making a comeback across the United States and, unfortunately, Chicago has not been spared.

Bed bugs are showing up in apartments, houses, shelters, and commercial spaces around the city, catching many residents and institutions off guard. While bed bugs were a regular but unwelcome part of life previous to the 1950’s in the U.S., bed bug incidences and awareness dropped off for many decades. Today, bed bugs are back, and many residents are unaware or unknowledgeable about bed bugs. In a recent survey conducted by the National Pest Management Association, only 13 percent of respondents could correctly answer all three basic bed bug questions.1,* Many organizations and governmental agencies are also without adequate knowledge, resources, and policies to deal with this crisis. The City is now playing catch up with this growing problem and needs to bring this issue to the forefront of its agenda.


Once thought a thing of the past, bed bugs are making a resurgence across the nation as well as in Canada, Australia, parts of Europe, and parts of Africa.2 They are not a new pest and scientists believe that bed bugs have been with us since people moved into caves.3 Fossilized bed bugs have been excavated from archeological sites over 3,500 years old.4 Yet, in the United States, we enjoyed a temporary reprieve from bed bugs from the 1950’s until the start of the new millennium. In the 1940’s and 50’s, heavy pesticide use and other practices decimated most bed bug populations, although pesticide resistance was documented even in the 1950’s.5 We enjoyed several decades without bed bugs, but today, the reprieve is over. Experts generally agree that the successful return of the bed bug can be attributed to: increased travel, pesticide resistance, changes in pest management practices, lack of public awareness, and the increase in living spaces and the stuff people own.6 Cities, towns, and even rural areas are dealing with the growing bed bug epidemic, without the knowledge of what bed bugs are or how to effectively prevent and treat infestations.

Awareness of bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) has increased dramatically with media coverage and the growing spread of the problem across the country. Unfortunately fear, stigma, and lack of knowledge are still prevalent. Bed bugs feed on blood and prefer humans over any other host. They need blood to grow and can live from several months to a year on a single feeding, which usually occur at night while we are sleeping. Adult bed bugs are flat, small (less than ¼-inch long), oval-shaped, wingless, and reddish brown;

adults are often compared to an apple seed. Immature bugs are smaller and amber colored, while eggs are tiny and translucent white. Bed bug bite reactions vary greatly. Many people do not react to bed bug bites, but some will show bites right away, some become sensitive to them over time, and some have severe allergic reactions. Bed bugs have not been found to transmit any diseases, but they can have health impacts through reactions to bites, loss of sleep, and resulting stress and paranoia. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and

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Lack of knowledge about bed bugs not only fuels the fear and stigma, but also exacerbates the problem by delaying reporting and treatment, increasing the misuse of pesticides by residents, and escalating the spread of bed bugs (from apartment to apartment or through hitchhiking on belongings). Anyone can get bed bugs, although certain behaviors such as picking up used furniture, travelling, or living in multi-unit housing can greatly increase the likelihood of encountering and bringing home bed bugs. Moreover, some individuals and institutions (for example, low-income individuals, shelters, affordable housing, etc.) are at higher risk for bed bugs and for experiencing recurring problems due to lack of funds for prevention and treatment, types of housing situations, and increased prevalence of certain high-risk behaviors.



Bed bugs are different than other pests we encounter in our everyday lives, especially when it comes to treatment. Early detection and intervention are key for dealing with bed bugs. A small problem can very quickly become a large problem that is difficult to control. Awareness is also important for prevention and reducing the risk of getting bed bugs. Treatment for bed bugs, when an infestation is confirmed, cannot be a simple spraying of pesticides. According to the U.S. EPA, “Bed bug control can only be maintained through a comprehensive treatment strategy that incorporates a variety of techniques and vigilant monitoring.

Proper use of pesticides may be one component of the strategy but will not eliminate bed bugs alone.”8 Bed bugs have shown amazing adaptability, over time becoming resistant to many pesticide formulations and they continue to adapt. In addition, they are difficult to reach as they tend to hide in cracks and crevices.

An Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach is needed to effectively deal with bed bugs, which usually includes inspection, education, prevention, proper treatment (non-chemical and chemical in some cases), and follow-up. Education, both of residents and pest management professionals, is necessary in order to promote early detection, identification, and proper treatment.

The combination of the lack of knowledge, high cost of effective treatment, and the impact of bed bugs on one’s physical and psychological well-being create a truly aggravating problem that is leading individuals to take matters into their own hands. Stores across Chicago are selling pesticide products for bed bugs to the general public, which is a much less expensive alternative than hiring a pest management professional.

Total Release Foggers (TRFs), also known as bug bombs, are one of these products that can pose real risks to people and their homes when used incorrectly.9 People are looking for an inexpensive and immediate fix to their bed bug problem. Instead, they may expose themselves and their children to dangerous pesticides


and make their bed bug problem worse. TRFs do not control bed bugs; rather, they tend to have a repellent effect, encouraging the bugs to scatter, significantly increasing their migration.10,11 TRF use may result in the spread of bed bugs, unnecessary exposures to pesticides, and even explosions when used incorrectly.

Education of tenants and landlords, especially in high-risk populations such as residents in low-income areas, is vitally important to prevent incorrect use of pesticides that can be harmful to their health and contribute to the spread of bed bugs.


Bed bugs pose a threat not only to the mental and physical well-being of Chicago’s residents; they pose an economic burden on society that extends far beyond the cost of pest control. There are many potential economic impacts on businesses and individuals, including lost wages, health care costs, lost revenue, loss of personal property due to an infestation, and reduced productivity (see inset box).12 Bed bugs are a real concern for the hotel and tourism industry, both for individual hotels that may be marked as establishments to avoid due to bed bugs or as an entire city to avoid due to bed bugs. In 2009, visitor spending in Chicago amounted to nearly $10.17 billion, with $586 million generated in tax revenue for the state and local governments.13 While it is unlikely that visitors will stop visiting Chicago, bed bugs could have a significant impact on people’s perception of Chicago and their travel choices. Public fear is growing, but education is not keeping up. Proper education will help individuals understand how to protect themselves and what hotels and others are doing about this problem. No hotel can guarantee to be bed bug free, but they can have protocols in place that include education of staff, monitoring, and a good pest management professional to proactively deal with bed bug problems. For hotels and other establishments, bed bug litigation and settlements are also becoming a looming reality, with significant economic impacts.

Bed bugs are not only showing up in homes and hotels, they are also showing up in schools, hospitals, theaters, offices, retail stores, libraries, day care centers, fire and police stations, ambulances, moving vans, and funeral homes.14 As a result, homeowners, tenants, landlords, companies, and other institutions are being put under financial strain by the cost of pest control for bed bugs and from health care costs, lost wages due to missed work, and reduced productivity due to the effects of a bed bug infestation. Lost revenue is also an issue for landlords faced with vacant units due to bed bug infestations or bad reputations as a result of infestations. The cost of pest control for bed bugs can be significant and recurring if the problem is not adequately addressed or if bed bugs are reintroduced. Nonprofits and government agencies that provide or subsidize housing are becoming very concerned by this issue. Affordable housing will not stay affordable, or even livable in some instances, if the bed bug problem continues to grow and continues to demand costly pest control on a regular basis. The cost of proper pest control can also lead some residents to taking a DIY approach. Some control methods, such as cleaning, vacuuming, and laundering, are required for proper preparation and treatment and can be done safely and effectively by residents.


Unfortunately, as discussed above, many residents will misuse and overuse pesticides in their efforts to rid their homes of bed bugs due to a lack of knowledge about both bed bugs and the actual efficacy of pesticides.

The misuse of pesticides can have serious consequences, especially on the health of those most vulnerable (children, pregnant women, elderly, and those with health problems). As a result, MPAC is recommending that bed bugs should be addressed on a city-wide basis through a comprehensive plan, including elements of both policy development and public outreach and education.


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