The bed bugs on the mattresses that no one is responsible for

Update: new Department of Sanitation rule in effect December 2010 plus other news in mattresses here.

There are some bed bug problems that are very difficult (like the lack of access to pest control services and the difficulty of containing infestations in multi-unit buildings), and then there are problems that are simpler, if only someone would stand up and own them.

“There is no law”

Nicole wrote to us about a bed bug problem in her neighborhood in Ridgewood, right under her window:

My neighboring building has bedbugs, I feel bad that they are dealing with that, but they do not feel bad or care that they are possibly going to contaminate my apt. They have been tossing mattresses outside, against my property, near my bedroom windows. [...] I notified the owner, who confirmed that the mattresses are infested (you can also see that the mattresses & box springs are covered in BB feces). I asked the owner to move the mattresses away from my window; he said he does not have to do so. I asked if he could at least put plastic covers on them, again he said he does not have to, there is no law….

two improperly discarded bed bug-infested box springs

two improperly discarded bed bug-infested box springs

When Nicole calls 311, every time a new mattress or couch appears, the operators are understanding but all they can do is report the problem to the Department of Sanitation as an “untidy property” complaint. It is unclear what the Department of Sanitation has done. Nicole suspects that the neighbor has been getting tickets, and might be ignoring them, but she has called 311 four times already.

She also called the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and… need we spell it out? Not their problem.

Nicole’s landlord has also talked to the landlord of the infested building, to no avail.

It breaks my heart when people write this:

Please help and let me know what can be done.

I wish I could.

discarded box spring under the window

discarded box spring under the window

close up of discarded box spring

close up of discarded box spring

“You are ruining people’s lives”

What is the fate of all this infested furniture?

Large trash day in Nicole’s neighborhood is on Wednesday. The Sanitation Department has picked up once. The second batch of infested mattresses was picked up by a mattress scavenging truck on a Saturday:

A truck came and picked up the mattress, I warned the guy, but he didn’t care, he wanted to make his 10 dollars. I freaked out on him, I yelled “YOU ARE RUINING PEOPLE’S LIVES!!” He did not care!!!!

bed bug-infested mattress underneath window

bed bug-infested mattress underneath window

close up of discarded mattress, one of several

close up of discarded mattress, one of several

Another set of mattresses was still outside as of last night.

Other trash from this building—strollers, a headboard—have been taken by people in the neighborhood. None of it was labeled as infested with bed bugs.

I have warned everyone I see picking through my neighboring building’s trash, nobody cares.

improperly discarded furniture and carpets from bed bug-infested building

improperly discarded furniture and carpets

So what is the solution to this deceptively simple bed bug problem of improperly discarded bed bug trash?

What is the right carrots/stick approach? The city is fresh out of carrots (or so we’re told) even if they thought to make use of them for this type of problem, so what is the appropriate stick? What sort of fine will make the owner of this bed bug-infested property sit up and take notice?

What about the mattress scavengers?

Nicole, like many other New Yorkers, wishes there were an education campaign appropriate to the levels of infestation we are suffering:

That is one thing that bothers me, is the lack of knowledge people have. I don’t blame them, I only learned recently. I wish flyers were sent out with all bed bug related info, to help people understand better. [...] I wish these people that are dumping this stuff would realize that without wrapping up their infested trash, they risk the chance of bringing them right back into their apts.

Teaching people how to properly wrap and discard infested furniture should be a more or less straightforward matter. Disseminating such information widely is not so simple, but it can be done. The tenants in this building are plainly in need of information. Throwing away their furniture will not solve their bed bug problem. Nonetheless, if they insist on throwing it out, as people sometimes will no matter what information or warnings are available, then they can be taught how to wrap it in pallet wrap or bag it securely and label it as infested.

Of course, the limits of an education campaign are evident in the person of this landlord who says simply, and accurately, there is no law.

Nicole is worried about bed bugs. She can see people buying the bed bug spray bottles at her local hardware store. She knows people who have had bed bugs and she fears the extraordinary expense of bed bug eradication.

I wish I could say something reassuring to her. The dispersal habits of bed bugs are not well understood. There is no doubt, however, that bed bugs and even newly hatched bed bugs on those infested mattresses can survive for many days unfed. I am not prepared to tell Nicole that she shouldn’t worry so much. Would you?

Nicole has gotten a fast education on bed bugs. I especially appreciate her point about the stigma of bed bugs:

It is unbelievable how many people have them, but don’t really talk about it. I guess since I don’t have them, I just feel threatened by them, I am not afraid to talk about it or worry about the stigma that is attached to admitting to having bedbugs. I bring it up to everyone I know, just to spread the word, I was so surprised to learn how many people I knew, and people they know that had them… is out of control!

A problem that is out of control, yes. But a problem that nobody owns.

One of the bills considered by the City Council last February would have gone a long way towards addressing this problem. It got short shrift from nearly everyone at the hearing.

Interestingly, at this hearing, a representative of the Sanitation Department was asked some pointed questions about a report that had come to the attention of the committee members about a person who put out bed bug-infested trash in properly labeled and secured bags, only to have the Sanitation Department refuse to pick it up! The Sanitation Department! They’re the ones at risk in these scenarios, and they could take specific steps to protect themselves and all of us.

The Sanitation Department will have a seat on the Bed Bug Advisory Board, if it is ever convened.

Recently Brooklyn The Borough got this out of Seth Donlin at HPD about the missing NYC Bed Bug Advisory Board:

According to Mr. Donlin of HPD, membership for the group has been finalized and an initial meeting is being scheduled, but the membership list is not yet available.

I think we’re all tired of waiting.

close up of discarded bed bug-infested mattress

close up of discarded bed bug-infested mattress


  1. Jessica

    Renee, this is an excellent post. What a great way to draw some much-needed attention to such an important issue.

    Thanks to both you and Nicole for this unique and refreshing perspective. It’s not often we see such an assertive effort from someone who simply does not want to get bed bugs.

    Can’t wait to see what happens once the Advisory Board convenes. Maybe when that happens, officials over here in the City of Chicago will finally make some sort of effort to follow suit. I sure do hope so.

    Nice work, Renee.

  2. Renee Corea

    Yeah, but the trick is not to hold one’s breath.

    Nicole’s pictures are great. I like the way she yelled at the mattress van guy.

  3. jon

    NYC Sanitation law went into effect 1/3/11 that requires all bedding to be encased in plastic bags. If not, $100 fine.

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