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In 2010, bed bugs had taken over the City of Toronto. The apple-seed-sized terrors had actually been creeping back into bed with the city (and pretty much every major metropolis in the world) since about a decade earlier, replicating like vampiric bunnies. But awareness reached a fever pitch in the summer and fall two years ago, with news reports chronicling the problem seeming to pop up every other day. There were reports of bed bugs popping up in libraries, movie theatres, hospitals, even on the TTC.

Eventually the reports dwindled and the conversations turned, but Toronto’s bed bug problem didn’t go away with the headlines. By many accounts, it’s actually gotten much worse. Despite the quiet, the question on Torontonians’ minds is (or should be): What’s going on with the city’s bed bugs?

According to Tracy Leach, manager of the Toronto Public Health Bed Bug Team (launched in 2011 with $1,216,518 of one-time funding from the Province of Ontario), it’s impossible to measure if the problem is worse or not, because of unknowns of reporting, but her team “definitely hasn’t seen a decrease in work.”

Anecdotally speaking, though, the bed bug bonanza only increased since the media hoopla in 2010. “It’s definitely getting worse,” says Dan McCabe, vice president of Magical Pest Control, one of the city’s largest pest control companies. “We do about 150 bed bug jobs a day in the GTA, mostly in Toronto. A few years ago, it was half that.”

The City of Toronto’s Bed Bug Project, launched in mid-2008, also records the number of calls received regarding bed bugs, which is another indicator. In 2009, 3,245 calls were received, and in 2010, 4,818 calls were received (note that these numbers are significantly higher than those circulating in other media reports). In 2011, that number sat at 3,838. Of course, these numbers must be taken with a grain of salt, since they represent all inquiries, not just infestations. The spike in 2010 could be explained by the increased media attention (and, let’s face it, increased paranoia).

Regardless, the problem hasn’t gone away.

In the latter half of 2011 the Bed Bug Team assessed 4,146 units, of which about a quarter had bed bugs. The BBT consists of Leach plus three public health nurses and six public health inspectors. This comprehensive approach is key, says Leach, because the inspectors deal with the landlords and pest control, whereas the nurses assist the residents with any health issues they might be facing, and assist them in moving forward bed-bug-free. The BBT currently focuses specifically on vulnerable clients, those lacking the physical or mental capacity to deal with an infestation effectively.

This focus on the city’s vulnerable is crucial, according to Councillor Paula Fletcher (Ward 30, Toronto-Danforth), a longtime advocate of bed bug control activities.”Bed bugs don’t discriminate; anyone can get them,” she says, noting that it’s much easier to get rid of bed bugs before they establish a full-blown infestation. “They establish themselves with vulnerable people, and then travel within the building to other units.”

Unfortunately, the one-time funding from the Province is set to expire on March 31, 2012 (excluding funding for the three nurses, which is base funding), and while the Board of Health and Toronto City Council have requested the Province extend the funding, it’s not yet clear if that will happen. According to Leach, if the funding isn’t renewed, the BBT would have to stop taking calls almost immediately, in order to complete the backlog of requests before the money runs out.

Fletcher also thinks that it’s time to hold building managers and landlords more accountable for the issue. “They’ve gotten off pretty easy up until now,” she says. “In one case we saw, there were bed bug feces and casings in the hallways.”

At a City Council meeting held February 6, a motion was carried to investigate the possibility of hosting a publicly accessible database on the City’s website to track and monitor infestations. “To shame the landlords,” says Fletcher. (There’s already a DIY way to track infestations at BedBugRegistry.com, which has currently logged over 2,000 complaints for Toronto.)

McCabe, Fletcher and Leach all overwhelmingly agreed that the key to beating bed bugs is to be aware of the signs of a potential problem (two telltale signs are bite marks and/or blood spots on your pillows, sheets and mattress), and to call a licensed professional immediately if you think you have bed bugs. All three stressed the importance of not trying to deal with it by yourself.

So, if the power to defeat them is knowledge, it’s dangerous that the bed bug conversation in Toronto has quieted. Any number of things could explain the drop in interest, but McCabe suspects it just that Torontonians’ attention has been pointed elsewhere. “The political stuff that’s going on at City Hall right now is a lot more interesting.”

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