A new Hamilton city councillor says he wants to ask the province to allow the use of banned chemicals including DDT to help rid the city of its bed bug epidemic.

Matthew Green, who was elected in October to represent Ward 3, says he wants the province to take “a closer look” at repealing the 40-year ban on DDT, or other powerful chemicals on a limited basis if they'll help eradicate bed bugs in Hamilton.

Drastic measures are required, he said. While campaigning, he saw multi-unit buildings where “upwards of 70 per cent” of residents had suffered from bed bugs. Some of them were CityHousing Hamilton buildings.

“I need to take a closer look at the science, but there are chemical solutions and I’d like to revisit that,” he said. “It’d have to be evidence based.”

The scientific evidence may be against such an idea, at least for DDT. Canada banned the chemical in 1972 because of its impact on humans and wildlife.

DDT was a common pesticide but had a particularly damaging effect on birds, causing a thinning of the eggshells and damaging their reproductive abilities. Populations of Peregrine Falcons, eagles and other birds were harmed by the chemical. It's impact on bird populations was chronicled in Rachel Carson's classic book, Silent Spring.

On its website, the federal government lists it as “moderately toxic to humans,” with low-to-moderate level impacts including nausea, diarrhea and eye irritation. Human deaths from exposure to DDT are rare.

The idea of using DDT for bed bugs is a probably non-starter, said Chris Darling, a senior curator of entomology at the Royal Ontario Museum. “I don’t think that’s going anywhere.”

Green knows that some of these chemicals have potential health impacts. But the mass scale of bed bug infestations are causing health impacts too, he said.

“It’s drastic and it’s something we’re going to have to look at.”

Bed bugs have increased 600 per cent

City documents show that incidents of bed bugs in Hamilton have increased 600 per cent since 2006, and have roughly doubled each year. They occur throughout the city, and are a particular problem in apartment buildings.

Bed bugs feed on blood, particularly on humans sleeping in their beds, said Susan Harding-Cruz, manager of the vector borne disease program at Hamilton Public Health Services. This causes sleep deprivation and long-term anxiety. In a letter earlier this year, one bed bug victim described feeling like she was losing her mind.

The bugs crawl into any opening, including drains and light fixtures, and migrate from one unit to the next. Getting rid of them requires using plastic to seal clothes, mattresses and other possessions for two weeks while exterminators spray, a process that can cost as much as $2,000 per apartment.

The bugs are also becoming immune to the spray, and some apartments are infested multiple times, public health officials say. CityHousing Hamilton, which owns local public housing stock, will spend $1 million fighting bed bugs this year.

In March, city council approved spending $100,000 on a “navigator” to help guide low-income and vulnerable populations through the arduous process of eradicating bed bugs.

Hired a 'navigator' in October

The city is also spending $150,000 allocated last year to treat the issue in residential care facilities. Another $100,000 will go to education and resources. An additional $100,000 is paying for a staff member to develop a bed bug strategy.

The city hired the navigator in October. The hiring process “has been a little bit slower than we’ve anticipated,” Harding-Cruz said. The city is finalizing its senior policy analyst position.

Green wants to look deeper at what the city is doing.

“The first thing I’d like to do is have a really honest discussion about the level of infestation we have, particularly in our CityHousing buildings,” he said.

“It seems like we haven’t come up with a viable solution that offers both practical supports and also social supports. When you see what an infestation looks like, you quickly realize it’s not about the bugs. It’s about the people living with the infestation.”

Educating landlords and tenants

Sam Bryks, a Toronto-based pest management consultant, doesn’t see using DDT as a feasible solution. Education is one of the best ways to tackle the issue, he said. Landlords don’t know how to treat bed bug infestations, and tenants don’t know they’re moving into them.

Cities need to educate landlords and tenants on how bed bugs are spread, he said, and how to treat them.

“It’s really about using an integrated pest management concept, which is really about assessment, evaluation and meticulous non-chemical treatment, and chemical treatment where it’s needed, in small amounts.”

The city is developing a way to map its bed bug complaints, Harding-Cruz said. 

"I would say it is a problem and it’s not going to go away. There used to be a thought that bed bugs could be eradicated. That’s not going to happen."