City spending $1M in the war on bed bugs, but there's no way to know when it's won

The city is working with landlords, one by one, to try to eradicate Hamilton apartment buildings of bed bugs. But it may never know whether the taxpayer-funded, $1 million effort has worked.
Calls to the city about bedbugs doubled each year from 2006 until 2011, according to Hamilton Public Health. And those numbers are largely holding strong. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

The city is working with landlords, one by one, to try to eradicate Hamilton apartment buildings of bed bugs. But it may never know whether the taxpayer-funded, $1 million effort has worked.

There's no bed bug census.- Terry Quinn, project lead

The city is one year into a three-year program to kill off bed bugs, which local health officials have called a near epidemic.

The insects cause devastation, shame and money troubles with everyone they touch, says Terry Quinn, Hamilton's project lead.

They suck blood from sleeping humans. They're so pervasive that they often travel from apartment to apartment through light fixtures. Preparing one apartment for treatment costs as much as $2,000, and often, the pesticide doesn't work.

Quinn says the current strategy has revealed dozens of infested units. But he'll never really know when the city is free of them.

"We don't know how many bed bugs there are now, and we won't know how many there are at the end of the day," he said. "There's no bed bug census."

This collaborative effort is making a difference in the battle against bed bugs.- David Horwood, Effort Trust

The only way to know if the million-dollar effort has worked, Quinn said, is if more people call to complain about them. And on that note, it's working.

In the last year, the city has helped 48 residents prepare for bed bug treatment — important since those afflicted are often elderly or disabled. It's helped 66 residents with consultation and medication. 

It's also trained more than 300 property management staff in integrated pest management, which includes a system of pesticide treatment and regular checking.

The city has also urged landlords to check other units when if one is infested. That's revealed dozens of cases where people had bed bugs and either didn't know about it, or hadn't told anyone, Quinn said.

This is one of the posters the city is distributing to inform people of bed bugs. (City of Hamilton)

"I can point to four or five buildings where they found bed bug infestations they didn't know about," he said. "The lowest number was one. The highest was 12."

The city also distributing posters and videos around how to do laundry if you have bed bugs, or reasons not to pick up furniture from the side of the road.

"Presumably, if people are seeing the videos, then they're able to follow them," Quinn said.

Quinn updated the city's emergency and community services committee this week, where Coun. Terry Whitehead of Ward 8 asked the question of the hour.

"Are we winning the war?" he asked Quinn.

In 2014, when council approved the strategy, health officials said bed bug calls had increased by 600 per cent since 2006.

But Quinn said the answer isn't simple.

"It's too soon to say if it's getting better," Quinn said afterward. "What we are seeing is the places where we're taking an integrated pest management approach are seeing benefits."

That includes Effort Trust. The company has 8,000 rental units around Hamilton, and has worked with the city and learned from the strategy, says Ivan Murgic, director of property operations. That includes implementing a "no shame, no blame" policy with tenants. 

"It's hard to know if the bed bug problem is getting better or worse," Murgic said. 

"One of the challenges is that some tenants do not realize they have an issue and/or do not report an infestation in a timely manner. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma to reporting a problem sometimes. Through education, training, proactive inspections, improved methods of treatment and monitoring, we have seen significant improvement in our properties."

Quinn said efforts over the next year will focus on stigma. Bed bugs are not related to cleanliness, he said, and are usually not the tenant's fault.

Many, he said, are still afraid to report bed bugs to their landlords.

Effort Trust says it's focusing on that too.

"Through innovative partnerships just like this, the private sector and social housing authorities can make real progress on issues affecting renters across the affordability spectrum," said vice president David Horwood. 

"This collaborative effort is making a difference in the battle against bed bugs."


Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca