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FAQ Check: Bedbugs

April 7, 2011 — Bedbugs have become an acute problem in recent years. The National Pest Management Association has found that bedbug calls in the U.S. have increased 81 percent since 2000. In New York City, government statistics show bedbug complaints have risen by almost 800 percent from 2008 to 2009. In that latter year, the city fielded 13,152 infestation complaints.

Here, in easy Q&A form, are answers to common questions regarding bedbugs in co-op and condo apartments.

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Q. What exactly are bedbugs?

A. Bedbugs, also commonly spelled "bed bugs," are wingless, bloodsucking insects formally known as Cimex lectularius. They are called chinche in Spanish.

Adult bedbugs are reddish-brown, with flat bodies about ¼ of an inch in length. Young bedbugs are much smaller and almost colorless. All bedbugs feed on blood. When a bedbug feeds, its body swells and turns bright red. Bedbugs mainly feed on people, usually at night when they are sleeping. Bedbugs do not fly; they crawl or are carried from one place to another.

Q. Are bedbugs dangerous?

A. Bedbugs are not known to spread disease. Bites usually do not hurt and usually do not wake up someone who is asleep. Bites can cause large, itchy spots on the skin. These spots sometimes take days to appear after being bitten. A reaction to a bite can be different from one person to another and one person may get bitten while others using the same bed may not.

Q. How does an apartment become infested with bedbugs?

A. In most cases, bedbugs are moved from one area to another on clothing, luggage, furniture, or bedding. They are also transmitted by people: Children can unknowingly bring them from school, relatives can track them between homes, and health aides or cleaning staff can pick them up at a client's or vice versa, for example. Cleanliness isn’t the issue — even upscale New York boutiques and the Empire State Building have been known to become infested.

Q. How can I tell if my apartment has bedbugs?

A. You may see itchy spots on your skin. You may also see the bugs themselves or signs that they are there, such as small bloodstains from crushed bugs or dark stains from droppings on your sheets and bedding. They also have a strong, sweet odor. Bedbugs are usually found in areas where a person sleeps (on or near beds, bedroom furniture, mattress and sheet seams or folds, covers, and in clutter around sleeping areas). When there are many  bedbugs, they can be found around the headboard, bed frame and bedside articles.

Q. How long do bedbugs live?

A. Usually for about ten months. They can live for weeks to months without feeding. A female bedbug can lay up to 500 eggs during her lifetime, and the eggs hatch after incubating for just one to three weeks.

Q. How can I prevent bedbugs from entering my home?

A. Washing clothing and bedding immediately after returning from a trip can prevent some infestations. Inspect all used beds, box springs, sofas, upholstered chairs, and bedding for signs of bedbugs before bringing them into your home.

Q. What should I do when I find I have bedbugs?

A. Don’t be embarrassed; it’s not your fault. Even major corporations and spotless boutiques can get bedbugs. You need to inform your board immediately.

Q. What should the board do when it is informed of bedbugs?

A. Your board should notify all residents quickly when an infestation occurs. (See next page regarding New York City notification regulations.) Your board should also have the apartments adjacent to an infestation inspected.  In advance, it should have performed due diligence on exterminators and have chosen one, plus a backup.

If the board is unresponsive, tenants should call 311 to report the problem to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

Q. Should your board have guidelines that exterminators must follow?

A. Yes, In addition to their normal course of treatment, exterminators should treat adjacent rooms and undertake the tedious job of using a flashlight to peer into every crevice and electrical outlet where bedbugs hide. Companies' treatments vary, and straight fumigation isn't best because it can send the bugs to neighboring apartments.

Q. May I use my own exterminator?

A. You have that right. At an infested 80-unit Queens co-op, the board went to court to try to force owners to use the building-appointed expert, but lost. The building did responsibly insist, however, that the apartments be inspected afterward by the building-chosen exterminator.

Next page: Boards' legal responsibilities >>

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