Armando Silva, an exterminator for Marina Pest Control, has seen a lot of nastiness during his years killing ants, fleas, cockroaches, and flies. But "this is the first bug I've seen that made someone cry in front of me," he says.
During his eight years killing the wingless nighttime bloodsuckers, three customers have melted into tears upon hearing they had bedbugs. Even in cases where people don't lose control, he finds himself as much psychotherapist as professional killer.
"I'm getting more calls from people thinking they have bedbugs, and they don't," he says, while driving to yet another such appointment last week. "I swear he doesn't have bedbugs. I went there a month before. And now I have to go and try to convince him again."
Bedbugs don't carry disease or poison, or produce any human reaction more serious than welts that resemble mosquito bites. Nonetheless, this kind of horrified reaction should be taken seriously. According to medical literature, some people's bedbug fantasies spiral into delusional parasitosis, where they imagine being devoured by insects. And the San Francisco news media seem to have succumbed. Like a parasitosis sufferer, local TV and radio stations and newspapers have recently delivered a rash of bogus trend stories alerting the public to an imminent bedbug plague, despite a lack of reliable information.
In September, KTVU announced, "Bay Area Officials Seeing Surge in Bedbug Reports." This was followed in October by stories on KCBS and in the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, which claimed that infestations are on the rise and that the board of supervisors was creating a new anti-bedbug law to block the scourge.
The stories were overblown. Local reporters had latched onto one of the most pervasive, durable, bogus trend stories in America, which essentially says, "Bedbugs Spread Across America in Search of Delicious Fresh Humans," to cite a tongue-in-cheek August headline on Consumerist.com.
The facts are more mundane.
In March 2006 and October 2009, the Department of Public Health held a powwow, as it sometimes does on public health issues, about bedbugs. Property managers, hotel operators, and tenant advocates left with heightened awareness of the pests. And, as expected, they reported infestations more frequently. Bedbug reports rose from 380 in 2008 to 532 in 2009, an increase Johnson Ojo, special program manager in the DPH's environmental health section, told me was due to heightened awareness.
Meanwhile, local and national news media had been filing almost weekly reports of bedbug infestations around the country, as if each finding were a national event. At the S.F. Health Department, reported infestations continued to trickle in: As of Oct. 27, there had been 449 such reports for 2010. "Every time a newspaper or TV channel does anything about bedbugs, we get a number of calls coming in," Ojo says.
The problem with using Department of Public Health reports as the basis for a supposed plague is that those changing numbers are nothing like a representative survey; sufferers are as apt to plague a hardware store's pesticide aisle as to report bugs to the government.
The assertion that San Francisco politicians were poised to strike back was also exaggerated. There is a bill before the Board of Supervisors that includes one mention of the word "bedbug" in a list of other insects.
But Rajiv Bhatia, the city's director of environmental health, says the bill is actually aimed at modifying ancient San Francisco blue laws, which had prescribed 10 days' jail time for public nuisance offenses such as accumulation of grass and straw, molds, trash, and noxious insects, a category that happens to include bedbugs. Under the proposed law, the very worst scofflaws would get a $1,000 fine.
If the word "bedbug" were removed from the legislation, its meaning wouldn't change at all, Supervisor John Avalos says: "It's not a bedbug bill." Nonetheless, a backlash followed. Bhatia said after news of the "bedbug bill" came out, he got more than 30 e-mails protesting the supposed bedbug crackdown.
These bedbug reporters shouldn't be singled out for shame. The recent San Francisco infestation of such stories is actually part of an unfortunate national media trend.
Like other national attacks of paranoia, the scare begins with grain-sized bits of truth. Bedbugs had all but disappeared from America in the 1950s, but then came back a little more than a decade ago. Bedbug bites, like mosquito or flea bites, can become infected if scratched to the bleeding point. According to single-room-occupancy residents and people who work with the homeless I talked to for this story, bedbugs have been a real problem for several years, especially in SRO hotels.
"Going back more than eight years, you didn't hear much about bedbug infestations," said Antoinetta Stadlman, who lives in the Baldwin House Hotel on Sixth Street, where she says she's the building representative for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which monitors the quality of life in SROs. "Nowadays you do hear about an infestation once in a while." But media have transmogrified a mundane factual story — in which bedbugs have been a problem for some people, but nobody knows for sure whether the problem is worse — into exciting horror fare.
In 2008, The Washington Post called foul on the fearmongerers. Writer David Segal counted more than 400 articles published during the previous five years describing what amounted to a "bedbug plague." That term "overstates it. A lot," he wrote.
The brownish-red scare seemed only to accelerate. Today, a Nexis news database search turns up more than 1,000 bedbug-focused stories, despite the fact that there exists no such thing as a comprehensive national survey of the pest. Instead, reporters often rely on exterminators to claim infestations are going up — without explaining that these businesses stand to profit from public belief in an epidemic.
Bedbug plague reporters have lately fed on another unreliable source: San Francisco–based website Bed Bug Registry, where people report supposed sightings of the critters. The site's FAQ warns people not to take its information seriously. "How can you be sure the reports are true? We can't — this is the Internet!" it says, adding the reports "have not been vetted for accuracy," and "we remind readers to take things with a grain of salt."
In his Post story, Segal noted that unverified bedbug reports, even sincere ones, can be unreliable; only one out of every five bedbug complaints to the New York Housing Authority actually turned up a real infestation. Nonetheless, news outlets in Las Vegas, Detroit, and New Orleans as well as the Examiner in San Francisco have used the site as a basis for a renewed round of unsubstantiated bedbug plague stories.
Here's the real plague: stories whipping up a bogus bedbug scare.