August 19, 2013

Biddeford's bedbug battle spawns call for ordinance

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD - When Lorna Girouard first saw a pest control van parked outside her Alfred Street apartment building in March, she assumed it was addressing a problem with ants.

SOURCE: University of Maine Cooperative Extension

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Within days, she realized she was wrong: The building had bedbugs. The infestation spread quickly through the building, and since March tenants and building management have been working with a pest control company to eliminate the bedbugs.

It's been a slow process that relies heavily on the cooperation of tenants -- most of them elderly or disabled -- to wash all of their clothing and remove clutter from their apartments before the pests are killed with chemicals or high heat.

"It's been awful," said Girouard, 59. "It just makes your skin crawl. There isn't anyone I know who wants to lie in bed and get bit by bugs."

While the company that manages Girouard's building at 87 Alfred St. has been responsive to the problem, that is not always the case, said Roby Fecteau, Biddeford's director of code enforcement.

Prompted by a growing number of complaints about bedbugs -- sometimes as many as 10 per week -- Fecteau plans to propose a local ordinance that would give his staff authority to address a situation when either the landlord or tenants are not doing their part to get rid of a bedbug infestation.

If Biddeford adopts a local ordinance to deal with bedbugs, it would not be alone, said Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association. Twenty-two states and a growing number of counties and municipalities now have regulations outlining areas of responsibility for landlords and tenants dealing with infestations, she said.

The increase in the number of regulations around infestations is a sign that the presence of bedbugs has not diminished in recent years, though the "hysteria" that surrounded their re-emergence a decade ago has died off, Henriksen said.

"I think a lot of people believe the bedbug problem has gone away, but that's not the case at all. We continue to see pandemic levels of bedbugs," Henriksen said. "It really is a problem that continues in all parts of the country, and it's a problem we're seeing across the globe. It's a problem that's plaguing society as a whole."

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

Bedbugs -- hard-to-kill insects that feed on the blood of humans and animals -- appeared in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s but disappeared for decades before re-emerging about 10 years ago. They spread easily, hiding in dark, protected areas like the seams of mattresses and behind baseboards.

Because bedbugs are not known to carry disease and are not considered a health threat, there is no central reporting agency that collects national statistics on the presence of the insect. Maine does not track reports of bedbugs, nor do most municipalities.

During the past year, 99.6 percent of pest control professionals have treated bedbugs, according to the 2013 Bugs Without Borders survey conducted by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky. In 2000, about 25 percent of respondents had dealt with bedbugs in the previous year.

There are 22 states with laws related to bedbugs, although the scope of the legislation varies greatly. In Illinois, the Railroad Sanitation Act requires railcars used by the public to be free of bedbugs, while Iowa only requires migrant labor camps to establish bedbug control measures in order to be permitted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Most laws deal with requirements around notification and treatment of infestations in hotels, motels and schools.

Maine and Rhode Island are the only New England states with laws related to bedbugs.

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