Philly’s Bedbug Problem

Thanks New York: Your Great Bedbug Plague has come south and invaded our lives (along with the stinkbugs and squirrels). Now only a few good men — and their dogs — stand between Philadelphia and a hostile takeover.

Where once we’d barely even heard of bedbugs, since they were all but eradicated in the U.S. in the 1940s after the introduction of the now-banned pesticide DDT, they’ve remained robust in many developing countries. Over the past five years in New York, and to a lesser extent in Philly, the bugs have reproduced and traveled in luggage and on used furniture at such an alarming rate that they’re no longer limited to hotels and homes, and are being found in offices, shops (famously, at a Manhattan Abercrombie & Fitch store, among others) and movie theaters.

While Philly colleges fight the bugs — Penn offers students a fact sheet and immediately remediates any problem — Philly families are also battling the insidious arthropods. Take George and Leslie, an erudite, well-traveled retired couple with a stunning collection of valuable paintings in their beautiful 19th-century house in Chestnut Hill, for whom the past year has been largely dominated by their unwelcome visitors.

“We’d gone to New York City for a week in November 2009,” says George, his voice stressed and tight, “and we stayed at the same wonderful five-star hotel we always stay at.” George and Leslie, who have traveled all over Europe, made the same sophisticated circuit they always follow on their frequent five-day stays in Manhattan. They ate at their favorite restaurants, shopped at Bergdorf’s, and innocently went about having a fantastic, glamorous time. After an Acela ride home, they unpacked and went back to normal life, until two weeks later: Leslie noticed a couple of bug bites, but thought nothing of it; perhaps it was a rash, or just skin irritation. That same week, George saw two miniscule dark bugs when he was moving laundry from the washing machine into the dryer. Having read several horrifying stories in the Times about bedbugs, the couple reached an anxious, manic level of panic, even though they only saw one more insect over the next week, near their bed, which they confirmed with Internet photos as a bedbug.

Their lives were turned upside down. For a couple who describe themselves as almost obsessively clean, it seemed incredibly unfair.

“We freaked out,” Leslie says. Because the bugs can nest in clutter, “we decided to get rid of everything in our closets we didn’t need. We threw out 23 Hefty bags of stuff.” The Prada suits and Armani coats that the couple did keep were sent out to a cleaner. They washed all their bedding in hot water every other day, consulted with several pest-control firms and, because they didn’t want to use heavy chemicals, vacuumed every inch of their 2,000-square-foot house twice a week, spraying mattresses and electrical outlets with 70-proof alcohol, which can be effective if an infestation is in its infancy. Though they weren’t seeing more welts, George in particular was having trouble sleeping — he woke up a half-dozen times a night, certain that he sensed a bug on his arm or leg. They endlessly replayed their trip in their minds — they hadn’t put their luggage on the bed, had they? Were the bugs in the Amtrak luggage compartments? Or in the seats at one of the Broadway theaters? How could this have happened to them?