Lou Sorkin began his lecture at last week’s special meeting of the New York Entomological Society by recounting a few choice tales of insect gourmandism—like the one about the tarantula tempura served at one of The Explorers Club’s annual banquets. Someone forgot to pluck their urticating defensive hairs and a call from the health department ensued. I heartily wish I could share much more with you (no, really) but I think I busied myself with some papers at Lou’s mention of the depilatory quality of cooked tempura batter. Don’t serve Lou mealworms is the only advice I can muster; unlike urticating hairs, mealworms make him sick!
Lou is famously exacting about public education materials about bed bugs. We are all better for his insistence over several years on highlighting the differences in appearance between the life stages of bed bugs. He spent considerable time on life stage drawings and photographs (beware the missing instar) and showed us (approvingly) Stephen Doggett’s update to his famous bed bug life stages (which you can see on page 16 of the latest draft of the Code of Practice) which was produced by photographing each bed bug individually and referencing the immature stages descriptions in Usinger for each instar. Lou clearly believes—and continues to persuade many of us—that accuracy and comprehensiveness in these matters is key in public education messaging.
He showed us innumerable photographs of bed bugs and bed bug harborage sites in all their glory, from the expected to the unexpected, his words and choice of photos cautioning in so many ways against the sort of received wisdom we have been exposed to for years (not 5 eggs a day, not only nocturnal, not just clover-leaf inspections…). Alert-looking bed bugs next to dead bed bugs, numerous barely-distinguishable immature bed bugs next to one or two adults (“you are not close enough”), heartbreaking advanced infestations, across-the-hall dispersal, the limited effectiveness of vacuuming—for both eggs and bed bugs, noting that he often plays with bed bugs and paint brushes (Lou!) and often they do not budge. I am so grateful for Lou touching on all these subjects, even if it was to a roomful of pest control pros. I wish more of you had come.
It was an interactive evening of bed bugs
Lou gave each person in the audience a loupe as a gift (like the one he gave me recently). And he had these for everyone to practice on:
You all know about the value of a notched MetroCard as an inspection tool:
“Grade School Bed Bug Project?”
These are two slides from Lou’s presentation which describe inexpensive monitoring ideas that you can use at home:
Improvised sticky traps:
Materials: “blue painter’s tape and 2 kinds of double-sided carpet tape plus using the backing of the tape as a cover.”
Vajra Kilgour is Vice Chair of Metropolitan Council on Housing and associate producer of WBAI 99.5 FM’s Housing Notebook. (Both Lou and Catharine Grad appeared on the program on January 4 to discuss bed bugs—read Bedbugger’s take and recap here.) Ms. Kilgour spoke about Met Council’s hotline (Q: “My landlord says I brought them in and I’m responsible.” A: “Your landlord is lying.”), Met Council’s bed bug fact sheet which she is personally working on developing, and legislative work. She noted that “laws can make a difference; there is less lead poisoning in NYC.”
She suggested that in the hard struggle to persuade landlords to do what they are legally required to do—maintain apartments in habitable conditions—the strongest action that tenants can take is to organize. She talked about the desperation of people who suffer from bed bugs—housing court litigants that are “bitten from head to toe”—and the people who simply cannot afford to heat-dry all their clothes, much less afford dry cleaners or throwing anything away.
The value of a strong tenant association is one important take-away message from Ms. Kilgour’s presentation.
Catharine A. Grad
Catharine Grad (Grad & Weinraub, LLP) spoke about the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. She said that “a landlord has the obligation to eradicate bed bugs in a building; that is the law.” However, she urged the PMPs in attendance not to casually tell people (tenants) to move out or break their leases.1 “You have to show that the situation is intolerable to move out,” and “if the situation is being treated, you can’t break the lease—it’s a question of magnitude.”
Tenants are obligated to provide access to their apartments and risk eviction for their refusal. She recognized that when landlords provide inadequate pest control services, tenants must still provide access and “work with” even incompetent pest control professionals or risk becoming part of the problem.
When pressed about alternatives to going to court by a member of the audience who had spent thousands of dollars in litigation, Ms. Grad said that court is “a blunt tool, far from a perfect tool” that takes a long time, but there are effectively no alternatives (“the alternative to court is to get a consensus in a community that is strong enough to compel landlords and tenants to act responsibly”) and so landlords and tenants should not wait. Landlords who cannot gain access to infested apartments should begin court actions as soon as possible, and the same goes for tenants who cannot get their landlords to act responsibly.
She said it would be helpful for landlords and tenants to have “more specific directives” about how to proceed with infestations.
Megan Quenzer’s perspective was precisely that of a tenant receiving inadequate bed bug pest control in her building. A new PMP who apparently knows what he’s doing has improved the situation, but the infestation in the building remains and Ms. Quenzer believes the bed bugs are simply moving from apartment to apartment through the walls, returning to apartments where they were thought to be eradicated.
She stressed the need for community education, for landlords as well as tenants (“everybody needs to be educated”), and expressed the hope that the city will track infestations and regulate bed bug services. She spoke of the efforts in other cities, particularly in Boston, and held her ground in the face of some persistent questioning by some in the audience about the futility of control efforts in the face of tenant introductions. It was also interesting, and sad I suppose, that some in the audience urged her to simply move out.
I am always seriously impressed by people who overcome the stigma of bed bug infestations (or are simply impervious to it) and speak publicly about their own experiences. I think Ms. Quenzer reached the pest control professionals in the room.
An audience of PMPs
The audience as I said was mostly from the pest control community, but I was happy to see Council Member Gale Brewer and Sharon Heath from the Department of Health. Some of the industry folks in attendance were Cesar Soto (Freedom Pest Control), Tim Wong (M&M), Natalie Raben (M&M), John Furman (Boot A Pest), John and Sue Russell (Action Termite & Pest Control), Todd Lorah (Action Termite & Pest Control), Kitty Lee (Residex), Gil Bloom (Standard Pest), Rick Cooper (Cooper Pest), and many others.
A note, however. The fact that the audience was overwhelmingly from the industry created an interesting dynamic when the guest speakers (a tenant advocate, a tenant lawyer and a tenant!) spoke in the second half of the evening. It’s useful to understand things as they really are and so I will quote one thing said by an anonymous PMP at the meeting:
“People go on the internet and become geniuses.”
Guess what, though, surprisingly, there was little back and forth about dogs! Or maybe I’m conditioned to expect the arguing about dogs that in any case did not materialize.
Bed bugs will not go away on their own
During his presentation Lou showed us this public education poster developed by WoodGreen Community Services in Toronto that I think would be a fitting way to end this post:
Source: All About Bed Bugs: An Information Guide (PDF)
Please tell someone about bed bugs.
Finally, I want to share what one person who was in attendance said. His reaction to what he heard during the meeting was, “this is so depressing.” Yes, it is in so many ways. But please remember what Dr. Stephen Hwang told us recently, because we truly can afford neither complacency nor hopelessness.
Heartfelt thanks to Lou. For more Lou, check out our interview from last year.
- This caution about giving improper advice to tenants cannot be stressed enough. I think that it is extremely important to understand that withholding any part of the rent and other actions such as breaking the lease, especially when undertaken without proper legal advice, expose the tenant to the risk of being sued by their landlords. Tenants can and should take their landlords to housing court instead. “HP” proceedings for repairs, I learned at a legal clinic offered by the West Side SRO Law Project recently that I have been meaning to tell you about, do not expose tenants to this risk and should therefore be recommended first. [↩]