The Philadelphia sanitation division has tried to spread the word about not spreading bedbugs.

In December, the city began requiring that mattresses put out for trash pickup be sealed in plastic, to deter dissemination of the resurgent bloodsuckers.

Sanitation officials have publicized the rule through water bills, block captains, the transit system, the media, City Council, and at a rally where disposal bags (about $5 apiece at home improvement stores and U-Haul agencies) were given away.

It also has issued 857 warnings and 154 fines of $50 each, said Streets Department spokeswoman Keisha McCarty-Skelton.

Alas, awareness and compliance remain challenging.

"I live in North Philadelphia, just north of Girard College. I see many mattresses thrown into vacant lots in my neighborhood," said Adam Lang, a board member of the Brewerytown-Sharswood Community Civic Association. "I'm guessing people who illegally dump aren't too concerned about making sure they are properly wrapped up."

Now, however, the new rule - modeled after New York City's three-year-old regulation - faces a test by a force that can be as infernal as bedbugs.

Off-campus college students.

They are notorious for abandoning or throwing out stuff - including bedding - when they move out of apartments in May and June.

"You think the students are on board with this?" University City landlord Mike Levin asked skeptically. "Sure, if we provide the bags, bag the mattresses and box springs, and carry it to the street for them."

Anne Thomforde-Thomas, who lives on Chester Avenue in University City, has noticed an unbagged mattress, put on the curb by student renters, "playing Ping-Pong":

"The trash collectors leave it. Somebody, maybe the landlord, puts it back in the yard. The kids put it out again. The trash collectors leave it."

If mattresses actually are infested, letting them languish and molder could worsen the problem of Cimex lectularius. Although bedbugs don't fly, jump, or transmit any (known) diseases, they are insidious hitchhikers. They're hard to exterminate without now-banned pesticides. And they can survive a year without a meal - that is, human blood.

Their intimate bites leave itchy, swollen, red bumps, unless you're among the 30 percent of people who don't react.

Donald D. Carlton, deputy streets commissioner for sanitation, said the division has not communicated "directly" with the 17 colleges and universities in the city to urge that they bug off-campus students about bagging beds.

But some schools are doing it anyway, as part of efforts to encourage donation, recycling, and proper waste disposal.

At Temple University, spokesman Brandon Lausch said the sustainability office is alerting off-campus students and "plans to buy bags and provide them as needed."

At the University of the Sciences, spokesman Brian Kirschner said, "We will be reminding our off-campus students via e-mail."

Drexel University included the policy in a recent quarterly newsletter, and will soon send reminders, said Kyle Kephart in the office of student life.

"Does that mean we're capturing 100 percent of them? I'd say no," he said. "You could provide a flier a day and not capture everyone."

And knowing about a rule is different from obeying it. Landlords like Levin - whose 65 rental apartments around 42d and Pine Streets are popular with University of Pennsylvania students - have to add an incentive.

"We send all our tenants a closure sheet that says, 'This is what we expect. We aren't your Mom and Dad. We charge by the hour to clean up.' Rarely do we take the whole security deposit. But at wealthy schools like Penn, a lot of kids just consider it another cost of school."

Levin added that he applauds the new rule.

"The intent is valid. Nobody wants the critters," he said. "Maybe we'll stockpile the bags and then we'll give them to [tenants], hoping against hope that they'll use it."

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