Council members listened to skin-crawling testimony on Philadelphia's bed bug problem Wednesday before promising to form a Bed Bug Task Force to plan an attack on the city's apple seed-sized squatters.
The hearing 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 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 to escape the critters.
A University of Pennsylvania team reported earlier this year that the number of cases were increasing, 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 mattresses to first encase them in plastic covers. Now he and others are calling for a comprehensive city-wide plan.
"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 Epidemiology 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 eight bed bug treatments in six months costing more than $2,500. "In spite of all the efforts, this bug is incredibly tough to get rid of," she said. "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 Network, Phil Lord said it's unclear whether renters or landlords bear the burden of getting rid of bed bugs - a lengthy 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."
The small, wingless insects feed mainly on human blood growing to the size of an apple-seed. Female bugs lay up to five eggs a day and can survive several months to a year without a meal. Bites are itchy and irritating. Most welts heal in a few days but some last for several weeks. The lifespan of a bed bug is normally 12 to 18 months.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner James Buehler pointed to New York City and Chicago as models for how to stop the microscopic blood-letting. Chicago requires landlords to provide tenants with brochures on bed bugs and prohibits hotels from renting rooms with bed bug problems. New York state requires property owners to provide tenants with a one-year bed bug infestation history before they sign a lease.
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."