Reports of bedbug infestations in Hamilton have "grown exponentially" since 2006, according to the city's public health department.
"I know from our numbers we do have a bad situation even compared to seven years ago," said Matt Lawson, manager of health hazards for Hamilton Public Health.
In fact, calls to the city about the bloodsucking pests doubled each year from 2006 until 2011, when the number peaked at 660. In 2012, public health received 605 bedbug complaints.
'Hamilton is very badly infested. It's much worse than surrounding areas.' —Roger Burley, Aanteater Pest Control
"At least we're not accelerating," Lawson said.
Roger Burley, owner of Aanteater Pest Control and Wildlife Services, has been killing pests in Hamilton for almost 14 years. Burley told CBC Hamilton he has seen bedbug levels in the city virtually double each year, too.
"Hamilton is very badly infested," Burley said. "It's much worse than surrounding areas."
Aside from Hamilton, Aanteater also offers pest control services to Burlington, Oakville, Toronto, Mississauga, and Brampton. Out of all those places, Hamilton has the worst bedbug problem, he says.
Now, the infestation in the city is reaching a point of saturation, he says, meaning that almost everyone that is going to get bedbugs has them. In other words — they've peaked, but not in a good way.
Moving into the core
The figures Lawson receives at Hamilton Public Health don't give an exact number of cases in the city — in all likelihood, they're actually much higher. The only time his department gets involved with bedbugs is when a landlord or tenant calls to complain about the situation in their residence. Many times, it's dealt with privately.
But the numbers Lawson sees can be used as a guide that showcases an upward trend, he says. And when it comes to a specific area, Burley says 90 per cent of the cases he's called in to treat are in the downtown core.
A crowd-sourced map from Bedbugregistry.com shows a similar trend: almost all of the reported cases come from the downtown core. Bedbugregistry.com lets people upload their experiences with bedbugs at a specific address and post them on a map.
Tanya Ritchie has been renting out properties in downtown Hamilton for 10 years, and she says the bedbug problem has "absolutely" gotten worse in the last five years or so.
"It's certainly become more common," she said. Ritchie is also one of the owner/operators of the Hamilton Guesthouse, and says she "mercifully" hasn't had to ever deal with bedbugs there.
But her tenants have in other places. "It's so horrible," Ritchie said. "It's expensive, and I hate to think of what it's like for people with these things in their bed."
A problem of density
According to Lawson, Hamilton's problem is density. With around 14,000 not-for-profit housing units in the downtown core, the pests can be notoriously hard to eradicate, he says.
'Anyone can get bedbugs. It doesn't discriminate.' —Matt Lawson, Hamilton Public Health
But Lawson was also quick to point out that people in a lower income bracket are not more prone to bedbug infestation than anyone else.
"Anyone can get bedbugs," he said. "It doesn't discriminate."
But density sure does help them out. With lots of apartments tightly packed into small spaces, the bugs have lots of places to hide. Often when one unit in an apartment is treated, the bedbugs scurry into surrounding units, Lawson says. So if one apartment has them, the apartments surrounding it need to be treated as well, he says.
"It needs to be a systemic process," Lawson said.
Not your average bookworm
The problem has gotten so bad that the Hamilton Public Library has had to drastically step up its commitment to bedbug prevention and control.
Last week, the library announced it's allotting $200,000 from its budget to stomping out bedbugs at its branches in 2013.Hamilton libraries to spend $200K fighting bedbugs in 2013
"We've opted to be as proactive as we can be," said Paul Takala, Hamilton Public Library CEO. "We've never had an infestation at any of our branches."
But they have found traces of bedbugs, like shell casings and eggs. "That's really symptomatic of the presence in the community," Takala said.
It's a problem they've had to adjust to quickly. In 2011, the library system spent just over $500 on bedbug prevention and treatment. That number skyrocketed to over $145,000 last year. This year, it will take an additional $55,000 to keep Hamilton's libraries pest-free, Takala says.
Because Hamilton's libraries received around 3.8 million visits last year, it's an inescapable problem, he added. "If even a small percentage of those people had bedbugs, they could get into the library," he said.
Lawson's hope is because the number of calls to the city in 2012 dropped slightly, Hamilton will see even fewer bedbug related issues in 2013. But there's really no way to be sure.
"From what we've seen in the past, they certainly haven't shown they're predictable."