San Francisco Apartment Association
home membership education & events legislation magazine community resources


Beyond Bedbugs

by Katharine Attar

Have you ever received a call from one of your tenants claiming they are being eaten alive by creatures in the night? If so, you might be dealing with bedbugs. These tiny parasites are notoriously difficult to kill or contain, and now they have returned in full force. Resistant strains of “super” bedbugs are infesting mattresses at an alarming rate across the country. Pest control companies nationwide reported a 71% increase in bedbug calls between 2000 and 2005, according to a 2007 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. In fact, San Francisco has been hit particularly hard, reporting nearly 300 bedbug infestations to health officials in 2006, more than double the number in 2004.

There are different theories about why bedbugs have made such a strong comeback. One hypothesis is that the bugs have grown resistant to the current crop of chemicals used to thwart them. If that’s the case, how do you rid your building of these superbugs? Licensed pest control companies across the U.S. and in California have begun utilizing a more comprehensive approach to pest infestations called Integrated Pest Management. This approach seeks to correct the conditions that lead to pest problems without unnecessary pesticide use.

The IPM approach is not only important for protecting human health but serves as an effective, long-term, cost-saving solution to eliminate bed bugs and other pest infestations within urban, structural environments. Conversely, conventional methods of pest control, which employ chemical pesticides, are harmful to tenants’ health, and they do not address the underlying causes of infestations. Landlords must also consider liability issues related to tenant pesticide exposure.

Tenants can possibly seek recovery from injury sustained as a result of pesticide exposure through common law tort remedies. For example, if a landlord, through a licensed pest control operator, intentionally uses a pesticide, knowing that the fumes or drift could cause injury and injury does occur, the landlord could be found liable for battery. There is evidence that pesticides can be bad for asthma and have other negative health effects, such as stinging eyes, rashes, nausea, dizziness, vomiting and even death. For liability reasons, property owners should consider all health and environmental implications in deciding pest control methods.

Integrated Pest Management Approach
Fortunately, there are many simple ways to control common pests in apartment buildings and complexes that do not rely on conventional pesticides. Spray-intensive pest control approaches may make pests go away in the immediate sense, but all too often they return. IPM is a proven, cost-effective strategy to combat ongoing pest problems without unnecessary pesticide use. Where conventional methods of pest control turn first to chemical controls, IPM seeks to determine why and how pests are becoming a nuisance and to address the root causes of the problem, which are often structural or building maintenance issues. IPM methods emphasize: prevention, by educating property managers and tenants prior to an infestation and denying pests access to food, water and habitat; monitoring pest activity to find out how they are getting into the building; exclusion, by blocking pest entry points; and control of existing pests with nonchemical methods first, then, if necessary, using least-toxic pesticides.

Educational activities should inform property managers and tenants of their responsibilities pertaining to the reporting and treatment of pests, as well as standard prevention measures. Prevention means denying pests access to food, water and habitat by storing all food in tightly sealed containers; cleaning surfaces regularly; eliminating standing water; keeping dishes and sinks clean and dry; eliminating clutter; deep cleaning cupboards, closets and drawers; inspecting boxes that have been in storage before bringing them into the apartment or building; and repairing plumbing leaks. It is a popular misconception that pest infestation in housing is the result of dirtiness on the part of the tenants. While certain unhygienic conditions may exacerbate an infestation, the problem itself is typically due to a structural issue (like leaky pipes, cracks in the walls or excessive moisture from plants situated too close to the structure).

Monitoring means finding out how the pest is getting into the apartment or building. Is it through cracks around baseboards and under doors, holes in walls where plumbing or heating ducts come through, doors or windows left open, damaged screens, or by bringing in used furniture? For bedbugs, monitoring should occur buildingwide once they have been introduced into the building, and at least semiannually thereafter. It is important not to assume that the units reporting the problem are the only affected units. Also, bed bugs should not be considered successfully cleared until 30 days of monitoring shows no further activity.

Exclusion seeks to find pests’ paths and block them by installing screens on windows or doors, installing door sweeps, caulking cracks and crevices in walls and floors around baseboards and windows, sealing holes around pipes, and fixing leaks in plumbing, among other structural improvements.

Control measures for existing pests include following the least-toxic elimination methods. One IPM approach to bed bugs is to reduce the areas that must be inspected (by laundering or drying washable items, and treating nonwashable items by heat treating, freezing, or oxygen deprivation and then bagging them and storing them away from the area needing treatment). Boxsprings should be encapsulated with mattress covers. Treatment to the infested areas must consist of physical removal via vacuum and contact killers such as dry steam and/or detergent water. Structural cracks and crevices where bed bugs are hiding—such as around radiator pipes, under baseboards and molding—should be treated with insecticidal dusts such as diatomaceous earth or silica gel and sealed with caulking.

An alternative solution is a heat treatment. This option allows for the treatment of nonwashable items, furniture and structural components at the same time and reduces logistical complications and risks of further spreading bed bugs to different parts of a building.

Similar nontoxic approaches can be used for other pest problems. For cockroaches and ants, try boric acid dust and borate-based baits. For mice and rats, use snap traps. For pantry pests, think about pheromone traps.

For fleas, flea combs, flea traps with incandescent light, beneficial nematodes, and oral treatments using lufenuron all work well.

While these methods are low-risk, some of them still require application by a licensed pest control operator. Licensed pest control operators certified in IPM approaches can be found through EcoWise Certified and Green Shield Certified services. EcoWise is an independent, third-party certification program that distinguishes licensed pest management professionals who practice prevention-based pest control. Local certified providers can be found at: Green Shield is an independent, nonprofit certification program that promotes IPM practitioners. Green Shield certification is available to qualifying pest control professionals and to buildings and facilities. Local pest control operators certified in IPM can be found at

Research shows that IPM is effective and economical. Numerous studies have documented the ability of IPM interventions to reduce pest populations, allergen levels and asthma morbidity. For example, a 2003 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that IPM can be an efficient and cost-effective way to control cockroaches in urban environments. More than 80% of the families documented the presence of cockroaches at the start of the study, while only 39% of families had cockroaches six months later—a 50% reduction in the roach population as a result of employing IPM interventions. The study also found that costs of IPM were $46 to $49 per unit in the first year (including repairs) and $24 per unit each subsequent year. Traditional chemical treatment is estimated at $24 to $46 per
unit per year.

IPM is safer than toxic chemicals, better for the environment, cost effective and reduces potential liability for property owners/managers related to toxic exposure.

Please join SFAA on September 21, 2009, at 4 p.m. at Fort Mason for a special presentation on IPM approaches to bed bugs during the SFAA annual trade show. For more information on the presentation, contact SFAA Deputy Director Vanessa Khaleel at or 415-255-2288.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the SFAA or the SF Apartment Magazine. Katherine Attar is currently the health and environment coordinator for Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, where she partners with community-based organizations and coalitions to advance environmental policies that protect the
public’s health. For more information on how pest control poisons can create health problems, contact the San Francisco Asthma Task Force at 650-994-1903. The task force grew out of the work of Bayview Hunters Point community advocates who built capacity to address asthma within in their district, and advocated to the Board of Supervisors to create a citywide task force.  Copyright © 2009 by Black Point Press. All rights reserved.