Joseph Lancman thinks the little buggers may be a bigger problem than most people realize. He's right.
In August, after finishing work on his Ph.D. in biological sciences from the UW-Madison, Lancman moved into a new apartment. His bed became infested with bedbugs, a once-common pest that's enjoying a worldwide resurgence. Lancman tried to get rid of the small, wingless insects, which like to feed on exposed skin, leaving large, itchy welts.
But it's an ordeal, requiring multiple rounds of spraying, repeated washings of clothes and bedding, and often the hiring of professional exterminators. Meantime, the property's human inhabitants are at risk of spreading the bugs to other dwellings. It can be personally devastating and emotionally traumatic.
Lancman, who ended up breaking his lease and tossing most of his belongings, has since spoken to others with similar experiences. "I believe the bedbug problem in this city is on the rise," he says, noting the associated stigma. "People don't like to talk about it."
Doug Voegeli of the Department of Public Health for Madison and Dane County, which handles pest complaints regarding hotels, motels and rooming houses, backs up Lancman's suspicion: "We have had more problems with bedbugs in the last couple of years." The department distributes a fact sheet and "Bedbug Handbook" to citizens seeking advice.
Al Vorhees, a field inspector for the city's building inspection unit (608-266-4551), says "nationally and worldwide, bugs are becoming more of a problem than in the past." And while it's not reached epidemic levels in Madison, there has been a noticeable increase in bedbug complaints.
"Two years ago, we got maybe one a month," he says. "Now we're getting three a month." Often it's difficult for inspectors to verify the infestation. Says Vorhees, "They come out at night when somebody's sleeping, and, I'm sorry, I'm not going to sleep in somebody's bed...."
The department has tried nabbing bedbugs with adhesives and occasionally can confirm their presence by finding the "dark excretion" they leave on mattresses. Recently, Vorhees found bedbugs by "looking behind things hanging on the wall" - picture frames, posters and such.
When an infestation is confirmed, landlords are ordered to remedy the problem - on short notice, if the infestation is severe. If nothing is done by the first inspection after the compliance date, the tenant can seek rent abatement. If the landlord still doesn't act, the unit can write a citation or refer the case to the City Attorney's Office for prosecution.
But the presence of bedbugs alone would not likely prompt the city to declare an apartment uninhabitable. And Lancman learned from the Tenant Resource Center that he could not legally break his lease over bedbugs.
In fact, some landlords don't tell prospective tenants of a bedbug problem. Or, as happened to one person Lancman met, the landlord might blame the new tenant for bringing them in.
Hmmm, what might be a fitting night visitor for people who would do a thing like that?