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.

They told almost no one.

“You’re afraid of people knowing,” says Leslie, who thought friends would feel repulsed and judge them (perhaps true). They considered getting rid of their furniture — antique beds, Empire sofas, French damask cushions — but finally, on the advice of exterminators, who felt that their house wasn’t in a full-blown infestation, decided to wait. The couple brought nothing except food in and out, putting on clothes they’d stored in sealed plastic bags by the front door just before leaving the house, and didn’t socialize for several months, afraid they would transport bugs to friends’ homes or to restaurants. “It was exhausting,” says Leslie. “For weeks, all we did was vacuum, spray alcohol and worry.”

Meanwhile, residents along the Main Line, in the northern suburbs and in Center City were calling in bedbug problems to exterminators at such a volume that in August, Terminix named Philadelphia the number-two city for bedbugs in the U.S., after New York. Around the same time, Action Termite and Pest Control, bedbug specialists run by the Russell brothers of New Jersey, were getting so many requests for treatment from Philly-area folks that they dispatched their nephew Steve Rozek and his bug-detecting Lab to live in Lower Bucks County. “We get a lot of calls from Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Villanova, all those towns,” says Rozek. He’s developed a technique for talking wealthy clients off a ledge: “We tell them that the bugs don’t discriminate,” he says. “A lot of people are dealing with this, and it’s going to take some time.”

PHILADELPHIANS HAVE LED A SHELTERED EXISTENCE, pest-wise, in recent history: For most of the past century we’ve grappled with infestations of things that don’t trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, like ants, carpenter bees, termites, mice. Now, with everywhere from a teachers’ lounge at Reading High School to the Monmouth Mall 15-plex reporting bedbugs, it seems — in horror-movie parlance — nowhere is safe. (So far, the City of Philadelphia and Montgomery County don’t offer residents anything in the way of help other than information, unlike New York, which requires landlords to exterminate and homeowners to disclose previous infestations when selling homes and apartments.)

“We’ve done million-dollar houses in Upper Makefield and apartments in Center City,” says Terminix’s Accordino. “Bedbugs are in U-Hauls and rental trucks,” he says bluntly. “You’ve read that they closed Abercrombie and Victoria’s Secret in New York, and wondered how they got bugs in their stores? They use these trucks.” Trucks, he implies, that surely rumble down the Jersey Turnpike to Philly. “Have your kids stayed over at a friend’s house? Did they bring a backpack?” he adds, conjuring a terrifying mental picture of bugs riding back on your 10-year-old’s pajamas. “In Philly, we’ve treated hotels, colleges, theaters, yoga studios and stores,” adds Mike Russell of Action Termite and Pest Control.