City Council members listened to skin-crawling testimony on Philadelphia's bedbug problem Wednesday before promising to form a Bed Bug Task Force to plan an attack on the pests.
The hearing included testimony from city health workers, exterminators, legal services, and First District Councilman Mark Squilla, who described getting rid of bedbugs in his South Philadelphia home.
They are everywhere. One exterminator called 2014 the worst year he has seen for bedbugs, and described residents who had to sleep in bathtubs or move out of their homes to escape them.
A University of Pennsylvania team reported this year that the number of cases was increasing, that cases came from almost all parts of the city, and caused the most distress in the summer.
Squilla, who fought off bedbugs in April, has led 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 citywide 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 bedbugs.
Cherie Happy, a South Philadelphia resident, described eight bedbug treatments in six months costing more than $2,500.
"In spite of all the efforts, this bug is incredibly tough to get rid of," Happy 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 that she pounds the mattress and yells in her sleep.
Phil Lord, executive director of the Tenant Union Representative Network, said it was unclear whether renters or landlords bear the burden of getting rid of bedbugs, a lengthy process with treatments typically starting at $400.
A state Supreme Court case says it is 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 multiunit 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 and grow to the size of an apple seed. Female bugs lay up to five eggs a day and can survive for several months to a year without a meal. Bites are itchy and irritating. Most welts heal in a few days but some last for weeks. The life span of a bedbug is normally 12 to 18 months.
Health Commissioner James Buehler pointed to New York City and Chicago as models for how to stop the microscopic bloodletting.
Chicago requires landlords to provide tenants with brochures on bedbugs, and prohibits hotels from renting rooms with bedbug problems.
New York state requires property owners to provide tenants with a one-year bedbug infestation history before they sign a lease.
Martin Overline of Aardvark Pest Management gave the most grim outlook at the hearing: "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 speck of dust on a mattress still scares him.
"That won't go away for two years," Overline said. "Two years [on], you start to feel normal."
Squilla said he hoped a task force would form early next year.