Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Public Health must declare bedbug war

Joe Fiorito

There are bedbugs in a Toronto Community Housing Corp. apartment building near the Eglinton West subway station. Mary O'Neil, a tenant, was telling me that she was recently bitten and had an allergic reaction; her arm swelled up and she had to go to the emergency room of a nearby hospital. The stress, she thinks, triggered an epileptic seizure shortly afterwards.

Tell me you think bedbugs are not a health hazard.

Diane Belfiore lives in the same building. She said, "There is a gentleman here who was sleeping on his balcony all summer because of the cockroaches and the bedbugs." The balcony is not an option for him now that the weather has turned.

Tell me you think bedbugs are not a health hazard.

The two women discovered, by knocking on doors, that bedbugs have spread. There was one infested apartment on one floor in June, and now there are several apartments on 10 or 11 floors of the 17-storey building. They also told me of a man in the building who washed himself with gasoline to rid his body of the bugs.

Tell me that bedbugs are not a health hazard.

I have heard about these vicious little bloodsuckers from people who live, not just in social housing, but in apartment buildings and houses, in neighbourhoods good and bad, all over town and across the GTA.

I have also written about the plans of Toronto Community Housing Corp. to deal with the problem. TCHC hopes to be able to respond to any complaint within 48 hours; they hope to spray any infested unit within a week or two of the complaint; they are spending a million dollars a year on pest management, including not only bedbugs but mice, rats and roaches. That all sounds so reasonable.

I am sick of reasonable people.

You cannot be reasonable while pests are sucking your blood. The problem is spreading like flames all over town. Where are the people who will deal with this problem as if they were firefighters in front of a burning building?

You think it's too expensive to declare all-out war on bugs? What is the cost of doing nothing?

Mary O'Neil shook her head. She said, "We're talking to some lawyers. I don't know if they're going to take it to the housing tribunal." I hope they do.

Tenants in the U.S. are beginning to launch lawsuits against landlords. No reason why we shouldn't catch up.

Diane said, "I shouldn't have to be scared. The social club we started here has stopped. People don't want to go out. They are staying behind their doors." In other words, they are afraid of catching or spreading bugs. Let me tell you that social isolation is a serious health problem.

Diane said, "A lot of people don't have families. The social club was an outing for them. You really want to know what the problem is? Come, walk the building, knock on a few doors, ask people what's going on."

There, right there: If Public Health now intends to learn about the bedbug problem, let them start with Mary and Diane. Let them also get a list of community housing addresses from the reasonable people at TCHC. Let Public Health start, right now, by walking around, knocking on doors, talking to tenants.

While they're at it, let them also investigate the work of care providers in social housing: I know of one instance in which a caregiver did not get help for an elderly woman, helpless and in the early stages of dementia, who was being eaten alive because her apartment was infested.

Joe Fiorito usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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