Bedbugs, the scourge that’s sent a thousand mattresses into the streets of our nation, are currently on the rise in all 50 states and one of the fastest growing infestations in the country is reportedly right here in San Francisco. But hope might be on the distant horizon — though local authorities seem powerless against the beasties, a recent study found one thing that seems to repel the bugs: their teenaged selves.
For a brief moment in the 1950s, it looked the United States was finally going to score a decisive victory in its 300 year war against bedbugs. Largely due to the widespread use of DDT, it seemed like the infamous parasites were headed the way of the dodo. However, after the pesticide was banned in 1972 and people transitioned to less toxic forms of pest control, the bugs started making a comeback in a big way.
Over the past three years, there’s been a 44% increase in reported cases of bedbugs in the city. The majority of bedbugs were typically found in the Single Room Occupancy hotel rooms clustered in the Tenderloin and extending out into SoMa and the Mission, but that’s changed — bedbugs are increasingly popping up in houses, apartments and hotels all over the city.
The National Bedbug Registry’s San Francisco page shows a map of all the reported infestations in the area.
Bedbugs reproduce more quickly in warm weather than they do in cold, so the recent spate of unseasonable warmth has undoubtedly been good for the pests and bad for the thousands of San Franciscans whose houses and apartments are teeming with the insects, which are almost completely invisible to people who aren’t allergic to the numbing agents in their saliva. People with the allergies register red bumps on their skin from the bites. People without the allergies, on the other hand, could be sleeping on top of a nest of bedbugs for years and not know it. Luckily, bedbugs aren’t known to carry any human-transmittable diseases–so what you don’t know might not necessarily hurt you.
Despite the alarming rate at which the pests are spreading, San Francisco’s Department of Public Health seems to be struggling at containing their proliferation. Even though the Board of Supervisors passed a measure fining landlords $1,000 for every day persistent problems like bed bugs aren’t dealt with, the DPH has yet to levy any fines. Newly elected, Pledge of Allegiance-hating, Twitter-loving Supervisor Jane Kim tore into the departmen at a recent board meeting for this alleged lack of enforcement.
There are a number of reasons why its difficult for the city to deal with its growing bedbug problem. For one, the DPH only has two dedicated health inspectors for the over 500 SRO hotels in San Francisco. To put that in perspective, if each inspector checked ten rooms a day, it would take them over 27 years to inspect every single one.
Another problem is the stigma surrounding tenants who admit they have bedbugs. Many worry that they’ll be charged for the expensive and invasive cleaning procedures–getting rid of a particularly bad case of bedbugs can run into the thousands of dollars.
Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, the DPH’s Director of Environmental Health testified at the Supes hearing, saying that enforcement is tricky because, “fault has to be established on the part of the landlord or tenant. That can be difficult, since bedbugs can travel from place to place with people and their belongings.”
While Supervisor Kim is looking to propose legislative changes to make the city more proactive in the way it deals with the infestation, a recent scientific breakthrough might hold the key combating the bedbug menace. Researchers in Sweden recently discovered what could soon be turned into an effective bedbug repellent–the smell of an alarmed adolescent bedbug. Apparently gross-smelling teenagers are universal across all species. The smell doesn’t harm the bedbugs, but it would allow exterminators to flush the bugs out into the open where squashed, burned or poisoned to death.
The other obvious use of the discovery, covering the entirety of San Francisco with teenage bedbug stink to drive all the bugs into the Pacific Ocean (or maybe Marin), may unfortunately be more trouble than its worth.