Council members listened to skin-crawling testimony on Philadelphia's bed bug problem, ending with promises to form a Philadelphia Bed Bug Task Force to plan an attack on the city's apple seed-sized squatters.
Wednesday morning a hearing on the extent of the problem included testimony from city health workers, exterminators, legal services and First District Councilman Mark Squilla, who described getting rid of bed bugs in his South Philadelphia home.
The pests in Philadelphia are everywhere - one exterminator called 2014 the worst year he's seen for bed bugs and described residents who had to sleep in bathtubs or move out of their homes.
A University of Pennsylvania team reported earlier this year that the number of reports were increasing, that they came from all most all parts of the city and caused the most distress in the summer.
Squilla, who fought off bed bugs in April, has lead the charge against the pests. He introduced legislation in the spring requiring people who are throwing out their mattresses first encase them in plastic covers.
"It's no longer a secret and we can't keep it a secret we have to let people know the problems we're having," Squilla said.
Michael Levy, assistant professor in the Center for Clinical Epidemilogy and Biostatistics, who participated in the Penn study, testified that in one section of South Philadelphia of 596 lots, 66 had bed bugs.
Cherie Happy, a South Philadelphia resident, described the eight treatments in six months costing more than $2,500. "In spite of all the efforts, this bug is incredibly tough to get rid of an it's really really important that people understand the severity of the situation and that people talk about the emotional trauma." Happy said her husband tells her she pounds the mattress and yells in her sleep.
Executive Director of TURN, Tenant Union Representative Network21, Phil Lord said it's unclear whether renters or landlords bear the burden of getting rid of bed bugs - a lenghty process with treatments typically starting at $400. A state Supreme Court case says its the responsibility of the landlord to cure "any material health or safety defect." But the city's housing code says tenants in single family homes are responsible for insects or vermin as are tenants in multi-unit properties if their unit is the only one affected.
"The laws don't help us a whole lot," Lord said. "Debates are ongoing about who should pay for what and who's at fault. As we've heard, anyone can have them, there's no way to get rid of them simply by being a good housekeeper."
Martin Overline, of Aardvark Pest Management, gave the most grim outlook "The problem is real and it's only getting worse." He described the paltry conditions he's seen - hundreds of bugs in a single windowsill - people driven to extreme mental anguish.
Squilla said he understood - months after he got rid of the bugs in his home, a spec of dust on a mattress still scares him. "That won't go away for two years," Overline said. "Two years you start to feel normal."
-- Julia Terruso
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