Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 20, 2010

Don’t let the bedbugs bite

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 5:55 pm

About 3 or 4 months ago I ran into R., a Columbia University librarian who had been reassigned to a much more stressful position under the impact of budget cuts. R., something of a kidder, was in a bleak mood. He hated his new job and complained about a number of illnesses associated with growing old—he is about the same age as me. But worst of all, he had been devastated by a bedbug invasion of his apartment that had forced him to get rid of many of his belongings. He sounded practically suicidal.

I was reminded of R. recently when I got an email on the New York Film Critics Online listserv about a press screening being moved to a new location. The original one—AMC 25 near Times Square—had been closed because of bedbug infestation as AP reported:

Bedbugs have attacked a popular movie theater in Times Square as New York battles the persistent pests. The AMC Empire 25 in Times Square was sprayed overnight and reopened Wednesday. A guest at the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9 theater also reported a bite in late July.

Spokesman Justin Scott said all AMC theaters in Manhattan were inspected. He said the chain takes every report seriously and acts to ensure the health of guests and employees.

Unlike some other calamities that are visited disproportionately on the poor, the bedbug does not make class distinctions as a New York Magazine article pointed out:

Margaret is an attractive woman, mid-thirtyish, possessed of all the happier contradictions of 21st-century noblesse. She’s elegant yet unpretentious; driven but in a laid-back sort of way. You would recognize her surname. Her husband, she says, laughing, “is one of those vilified bankers.” She is a career woman herself, expert in the field of marketing with a wealth of international experience, proficient in several languages, speaking mainly French to her young son. Her family’s apartment is in the East Eighties. It is large, immaculate, and well appointed. Margaret, barefoot, wiggles her toes as she sits beneath a Richard Serra. Works by other notable modernists hang elsewhere.

Margaret and her family moved here from Tribeca last fall. The place was just what they wanted—newly renovated and much closer to their 4-year-old son’s school. But within a few weeks, Margaret’s son (let’s call him James) woke up with welts on his chest. Margaret wasn’t alarmed; she figured it was a rash or virus, the kind of thing kids get every day. But when the welts lingered, then more showed up—on James’s back and arms and legs—Margaret took him to the pediatrician. The doctor initially regarded the marks as an atypical form of chicken pox. In the following weeks, however, after James’s welts became infected and began appearing in still more places, Margaret took him to a pediatric dermatologist. That doctor diagnosed the problem as mosquito bites, and recommended the family “bomb” the apartment. Not long after, Margaret and her husband began noticing that they, too, had bites. That’s when Margaret inspected her son’s bed. “I saw these minuscule black creatures,” she says. “I’m squeamish, but I reached out and squashed one. It was filled with my son’s blood. And they were all over. I turned the headboard around and saw all the eggs. At which point I screamed.” Margaret did some Internet research, then called an entomologist. When the bug expert conveyed his conclusion to Margaret, she was horrified, disgusted, and not a little concerned for her family. And although she is no snob, Margaret couldn’t repress an uncomfortable thought: that people who live in multimillion-dollar apartments in the tonier precincts of the Upper East Side are just not supposed to have bedbugs.

Some blame the outbreak of bedbugs on immigration. A November 27, 2005 NY Times article stated:

In the bedbug resurgence, entomologists and exterminators blame increased immigration from the developing world, the advent of cheap international travel and the recent banning of powerful pesticides.

VDARE, the anti-immigration website, has an article on bedbugs with this bit of nativist trash:

So, I would suggest that it is not a coincidence that bed bugs have returned with a vengeance in  Southern California, with its millions of  poor immigrants, living sometimes three or four families to a dwelling and going out daily to clean our  hotels, and motels and our wealthier private homes.

In terms of international travel, perhaps it is the globe-trotting wealthy who are more to blame than the poor, citing the New York Magazine article once again:

Insisting that there’s not a problem—that bedbugs only happen to other people—may actually contribute to the problem. The longer you avoid the issue, the more the bugs proliferate. The number of large, multi-unit apartment buildings is another factor, Eisenberg says—it’s easy for the bugs to hop from one apartment to the next. He also says travel may make well-heeled families uniquely susceptible to infestation, as families jet around the globe and carry back bloodthirsty hitchhikers.

Catherine and her family live in the East Seventies (like Margaret, Catherine doesn’t want her real name used). Her family’s problem started about two years ago. “I noticed some marks on my arm,” she says. “Then we went to the Caribbean, and when we got there, I noticed bites on my baby’s face.” When the family got back home, Catherine noticed dark dots on her baby’s bed. Her pediatrician recognized the bites right away. “Do you want the real nitty-gritty disgustingness?” she asks, referring to her daughter’s bed. “The dark dots were the bugs going to the bathroom. It was excrement. You could also see drops of blood. When you move, the bugs think you’ll discover them—so they spit out the blood and run.”

The other thing you hear in media reports is how the ban on DDT is to blame. In a variation on the dubious sympathy for Africa’s poor emanating from Spiked Online and other anti-environmentalist sources, we are led to understand that a wave of the DDT wand will fix everything.

But as is the case with DDT, you are dealing with insects that develop resistance to the pesticide with truly alarming results. On the authoritative website New York Versus Bed Bugs, you can read a useful article titled No DDT, thanks, we’re good . It debunks the arguments made for DDT both against malaria and bedbugs. With respect to bedbugs, it has a link to an article in Pest Control Technology, an industry publication, titled Insecticide-Resistant Bedbugs: Implications for the Industry. The facts are not reassuring. Using a dose 10 times the norm, insect populations in New York State and elsewhere were rated as having zero percent mortality. That’s ZERO.

This is a serious public health problem. While bedbugs do not spread disease, they can make your life a living hell and incur major expenses to exterminators and for clothing/household goods replacements. It requires a massive campaign to isolate the bugs and spread public awareness about how to prevent their spread. Does anybody expect the Obama administration to spearhead such a campaign? I don’t.

The longer I am witness to late capitalism in its senescence, the more I am reminded to the USSR in the 1980s. This is a society that is falling apart at the seams and that lacks any kind of bourgeois leadership to resolve the most pressing problems of public health, infrastructure, etc. Perhaps a visitation of bedbugs into the Obama household will shake things up, but after seeing this feckless president in action for the past two years, probably not.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Товарищ Х, Left News. Left News said: Don’t let the bedbugs bite – http://doug.vg/R2s […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Don’t let the bedbugs bite « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist -- Topsy.com — August 21, 2010 @ 1:09 am

  2. Looking at the USSR in the 90’s shows there is no guarantee of a positive ending.

    Comment by purple — August 21, 2010 @ 3:26 am

  3. What screwed Russia up after Communism was that they let Friedmanites come in and pretty much dictate the economy. If the shit hits the fan in the capitalist world, the only guarantee of a positive outcome is if there is a strong working class and socialist movement, otherwise Trotsky’s old prophecy will be fulfilled. It’s socialism or barbarism.

    Comment by Rob — August 21, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

  4. And which is the greatest threat, bedbugs or Obama? Your use of the word “feckless” is so perfect.

    Comment by Richard Greener — August 21, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

  5. We have a bedbug epidemic here in Vancouver B.C,in fact my friend went through hell tying to rid his place, with sprays replacing couches, chairs,mattresses etc etc.In the end the solution turned out to be relatively easy i.e, get the temp up to 120-140 and hold it there for 20-30 min end of problem. That said if one is living in an apartment building unless all apartments are treated the bastards can easily migrate between apartments.

    Comment by dirk — August 23, 2010 @ 8:39 am

  6. “The longer I am witness to late capitalism in its senescence, the more I am reminded to the USSR in the 1980s. This is a society that is falling apart at the seams and that lacks any kind of bourgeois leadership to resolve the most pressing problems of public health, infrastructure, etc.”

    I’d like to believe that Mandel and others were correct when they speak of “late capitalism”, but are they? I am fearful that capitalists can effectively restructure the US and much of the global economy in a way that enables them to expropriate more wealth for themselves over quite a long period of time. In other words, while I recognize the turbulent nature of the current period, I wonder if we see it in more apocalyptic terms because of the relative stability of the post-war era constructed by FDR and Keynes. Capitalism in the late 18th and early 19th Century was extremely rapacious and cruel, and yet survived all threats to emerge as the dominant global economic system.

    Or, to put it differently, capitalism can flourish despite severe problems related to public health and infrastructure.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 23, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

  7. I started a group on Flickr called Bedbug Mattresses, at http://www.flickr.com/groups/1500258@N23/

    Anyone can join and post photos of discarded beds.

    Comment by RAoL — August 24, 2010 @ 4:09 am

  8. on pests
    an old technique to rid pests is to find some of the pests ., crush them, mix with water, diluet(homepathic fashion) and spray in infected area. Its mentioned in a book i have on homopathy and was used by an australian farmer who had problems with fly blown sheep.

    also this may be helpful:
    ‘bed bugs die! From shirlee on 2007-03-05
    3 replies 1073 views
    I have been trying to give help on killing bed bugs…we were infested with them, my aunt brought them from out of state…..I didn’t even know what they were but one day a friend told us how to get rid of them…Borax Detergent (100 mule team) and salt mixed together…..we took out the beds and poured boraxsalt all over and you could see them pop up ..then poured alll over the carpets and in the baseboards…gone…just to be safe repeated couple weeks later…been free of bed bugs for over 1 year


    Comment by BRIAN — August 24, 2010 @ 11:06 pm

  9. “the bedbug does not make class distinctions”

    But treatment does. Do you know many working people who can afford a $2000 treatment (that is not guaranteed to work)?

    Of course you can call the super in a place like NYC and they’ll come fumigate once, with chemicals that are known not to have any effect on bedbugs.

    The only real recourse is to get all new bedding, couches, etc. Bring a bedbugs sniffing dog in. And have the entire place frozen. In apartment buildings even this usually only drives the bugs to the neighbor’s place. And you’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars.

    And yes, the ban of DDT and things like it is largely to blame. Unless you think it’s a coincidence that bedbugs – that had practically disappeared from human societies 50 years ago – have come back as pesticide use has fallen.

    Comment by The Idiot — August 25, 2010 @ 9:59 am

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