Bedbugs bite into the US economy
Monday, May 16, 2011
In popular culture, New York is the city
that never sleeps, the concrete jungle in which dreams are made, a
place to walk on the wild side.
The reality is the US financial capital is, above all, a crowded
and bustling pool of humanity, in which about nine million people
live and work cheek by jowl.
Such proximity makes it the perfect breeding ground for a
creature that certainly causes its residents to lose sleep, and for
many is the stuff of nightmares.
For the past few summers, New York has been struggling with an
epidemic of bedbugs - tiny bloodsucking insects that hide during
the day, but come out to feed at night.
An infestation of bedbugs is very easy to acquire, and very
difficult to eradicate. They can be picked up in taxis or cinemas,
on subway trains or in hotel rooms.
Last year, some of the city's flagship retailers were affected.
Lingerie retailer Victoria's Secret and teen fashion store
Hollister were among those that had to close outlets while pest
controllers were called in.
For businesses, finding bedbugs can be very bad news indeed.
Getting rid of them can be very expensive, with treatment of
commercial premises sometimes costing tens of thousands of
But damage to reputations can be even harder to rectify,
according to Scott Bermack of New York legal firm LeClair Ryan.
Bedbugs are becoming more
resistant to chemical treatments, experts say
"It's a public relations nightmare," he says. "There's a
perception among the public that one bug is an infestation.
"You hear about one bug in a store or a hotel and the customers
are going to run out and tell their friends and tell all the
Disgruntled customers are also likely to take legal action. When
bedbugs are found, says Mr Bermack, the writs soon follow.
"You have people suing for damage to furniture, damage to
clothing. You have people suing for pain and suffering, for
emotional damages or psychological damages.
"There's really no limit to the creativity of the plaintiffs'
lawyers in terms of the claims they'll make."
Because companies are anxious to limit bad publicity, many of
these cases are settled out of court - adding thousands of dollars
to the bills they already face for getting rid of the bugs.
Lawyers, of course, are making money out of the bedbug epidemic,
but they are not the only ones.
- Do not take in second-hand beds or mattresses
- Do not allow clutter to build up where you sleep - it is a
perfect nesting place for bedbugs
- When looking around rented accommodation, watch out for
tell-tale blood spots or smears on sheets, and in the seams of
furniture and upholstery
- Do not wait to report a problem - nip an infestation in the bud
before it grows
- Bedbugs are not thought to be able to bite through clothing -
as a last resort, you can zip yourself into a sleeping bag or
all-over body suit
- Call pest control to deal with an infestation
"It's been terrific in terms of revenue," says Timothy Wong,
director of pest control firm M&M Environmental.
His office in Manhattan's Lower East Side is packed with the
bulky equipment needed to eradicate bedbugs, and a pervasive smell
of insecticide hangs in the air.
"Six or seven years ago, bedbug-related services made up less
than 1% of our total revenue. Today, it's more than 25%," he
"We're treating almost everything, from commercial offices to
retail stores, hotels, giant department stores, airlines - just
His company makes its money not only from getting rid of
bedbugs, but also from preventing them getting established in the
Inevitably, the surge in demand for pest control services has
prompted many entrepreneurs to try their luck in the market. But
according to Mr Wong, few have succeeded.
"There were a lot of new players who came in. In 2010, there
were more than 125 new entrants into the market."
"But the funny thing is, 60 or 70% of them have already left.
They came into an industry that they're not familiar with. The
overheads are huge, the equipment is expensive, and the training is
"So people jumping into the business thinking they can turn up
and cash in… well, it's difficult. And I think they're proving
that's the case."
But for Mr Wong's own company, business is booming - a fact made
all too obvious by the row of sales staff crammed into a narrow
corridor, taking calls from anxious homeowners and businesses.
It's a line of work that looks unlikely to dry up any time
Insecticides that used to be effective against bedbugs, such as
DDT, have been banned, while the insects have steadily become
immune to others.
Bedbug activity increases during warm weather, and experts say
this summer will be no exception. New York is bracing itself for
another irritating onslaught.
But the uncomfortable fact is that, as in so many areas, where
New York leads, other cities look set to follow.
Bedbugs are notoriously good travellers, and signs of similar
epidemics are already emerging in Philadelphia, Los Angeles,
Washington, London and Paris.
Good business for some, sleepless nights for others.