Bedbugs are all over Hamilton — but you’re likely never to know where they are hiding, unless one of them hitches a ride home with you and moves in.
Despite receiving more than 1,500 complaints in the last seven years, the city says it has no obligation to reveal to the public where bedbugs are found — even in city-owned facilities.
Earlier this year, Hamilton ranked No. 10 on Orkin Canada’s annual list of cities with the most bedbugs. The ranking is based on the number of treatments the pest control company did in the previous year in more than two dozen cities across the country.
But information on where bedbugs have been reported, detected and treated in the city is limited, as private organizations and even the city are not required to release that information to the public — even in venues that are open to the public.
Richard MacDonald, the city’s food and water safety manager, told The Spectator there is no requirement for the city to notify the public about the presence of bedbugs as “they are a part of the urban environment.”
However, when pressed about the need for openness on the bedbugs in city-operated spaces, spokesperson Antonella Giancarlo told The Spectator the city is “exploring a citywide procedure to help streamline handling of bedbug infested material and enhance transparency.”
That procedure, currently under development, is expected to be completed next year, Giancarlo said.
For now, the city’s role is to provide education to the public on how the pint-sized pests can be avoided, MacDonald said.
As of early December, the city had received 94 bedbug-related complaints for both residential and commercial properties. That number is up from 2020, 2021 and 2022, which saw 10, 23 and 78 reports, respectively, according to MacDonald.
But compared to the few years before the pandemic, official bedbug complaints in the city have plummeted. Back in 2019, there were 419 reports, 2018 saw 465 and 2017 wracked up 474 reports.
When bedbugs are reported somewhere such as a business, MacDonald said the city can give either a verbal or written order to the owner to ensure the establishment is treated by a licensed pest control operator.
If treatment doesn’t happen, MacDonald said the city will send in a pest control contractor and the costs will be billed back onto the property owner’s taxes.
However, their compliance role stops there, MacDonald said, noting that the city “would not order a business to close due to the presence of bedbugs.”
But, what happens when bedbugs are found in a truly public space — such as a recreation centre or a city bus?
As of early December, the city had responded to roughly 42 reports of bedbugs at city-owned facilities this year, with a majority of those being in library facilities, according to Giancarlo.
Information provided to The Spectator shows bedbugs were reported and treated in several city facilities this year, including in the Mountain Transit Centre, Macassa Lodge, Frank A. Cooke Transit Terminal, Landmark Place, Wentworth Operations Yard and Tim Hortons Field.
Last year, the city responded to 52 reports of bedbugs in public facilities. In 2021, the city responded to 134 reports — the highest since at least 2017, according to data provided to The Spectator. It’s unclear how many of those reports were for libraries.
Bugs on the bus
The tiny pests are in more than just buildings and books — they’re also on public transportation, with the city treating at least 47 HSR buses for bedbugs as of December.
Transit director Maureen Cosyn Heath told The Spectator that when bedbugs are reported on a vehicle, it is quickly taken out of service and undergoes a “thorough treatment.”
Cosyn Heath said the organization had looked into treating the entire bus fleet for bedbugs, however they were told that “would only address pests at the time of treatment and may not provide a long-term solution.”
On top of monthly cleanings, Cosyn Heath said the organization has started transitioning away from fabric-covered seats to aid in the prevention of bedbugs.
“This change not only offers a more comfortable ride but also limits the potential hiding spots for bedbugs,” Cosyn Heath added.
Transparency at the library
Libraries represent the majority of bedbug reports within public facilities in Hamilton and the institution is tackling the challenge with candidness at the core, said Paul Takala, CEO and chief librarian of the Hamilton Public Library, in an interview.
Unlike the city, the institution shares the results of its bedbug inspections online, updating the data each quarter. The reports, which date back to 2017, note the date of the inspection, the location, whether bedbugs were detected and if they were treated.
“It’s not that we’re a particular risk,” said Takala. “But because we have so many people coming to the library and this problem exists in our community, we felt a responsibility to be transparent and more proactive than others.”
Takala told The Spectator the issue of bedbugs within the library has become more challenging since the start of the pandemic, with the institution seeing more and more of the tiny pests within its facilities.
But exactly why is “hard to pin down,” he noted.
Takala said one of the factors may be the return of in-person visits, which have been growing steadily since the institution reopened amid the pandemic.
Shelley McKay, manager of communications for the library system, told The Spectator that around 60,000 people come through their doors each week.
However, that is down from before the pandemic, when the library was seeing around 70,000 visitors each week across its branches, McKay noted.
Takala also pointed to increased inspections as a reason for the numbers — the more the library looks for bedbugs, the more they find.
“We’re testing, we’re monitoring, we’re not putting our heads in the sand,” said Takala. “We’re committed to making sure that we can create as safe an environment as possible, given that we have so many people that come into the library.”
Where are bed bugs in the library?
Nearly half of all library branches — as well as the bookmobiles — showed evidence of bedbugs last year during regular inspections, with the pests being detected and treated 29 times, according to the publicly released reports.
However, that data is separate from incidents of pests reported by staff, said McKay, who noted that bedbugs account for around 90 per cent of those reports, while the remaining incidents involve unspecified insects.
According to data provided to The Spectator, there were 157 incidents of pests reported by staff last year, with 139 — or 89 per cent — of those incidents reported at the Central branch in the downtown.
However, Takala believes the issue may have peaked — for now — with inspection reports and incidents involving bed bugs having declined so far this year.
In the first half of the year, there had been just 37 incidents of pests reported by staff, while their regular inspections had found evidence of bedbugs just 10 times, with six of those incidents at Central.
So why is Central such a hot spot for the tiny pests?
The answer isn’t simple, said Takala, noting the high number of visitors to the branch, the population staff often serve at the location and the dense, urban environment surrounding the facility could all contribute.
Around 546,000 people visited Central last year, while the next busiest branch was Turner Park on the East Mountain with roughly 136,000 visitors, according to the institution.
Takala said the branch is also seeing more patrons who are facing “serious struggles,” including the colliding crises of mental health, opioid overdoses and homelessness — all of which have been declared as separate states of emergency by council.
To cope with the growing challenges, the library hired a full-time social worker for the downtown branch back in 2022. That program was expanded to the Barton branch earlier this year.
With many of the patrons living in dense highrise apartment buildings — where bedbugs can easily spread and thrive — the situation is beyond their control, Takala noted.
But that doesn’t mean the library stops serving those folks — instead, staff move to manage the risk and ensure their access to library services remains the same.
That comes in the form of private conversations between patrons and library managers, who offer suggestions for treatment, and offering people options — such as sealable plastic bags — to return materials.
“We welcome everyone in the community,” said Takala. “For us as a library, we’re really trying to bring people together, no matter what their circumstances are.”
In an effort to do that safely, the library has implemented measures for inspection and prevention.
Sarah Gauthier, manager of information services at the downtown branch, told The Spectator that all materials that are returned to Central are searched by staff for signs of bedbugs. They typically hide in the spines of books, noted Takala.
So far this year, there have been an average of 640 items checked in at the branch per day, according to the institution.
Gauthier said if the materials show any signs of potentially having bedbugs, they are separated and placed on a cart sent for treatment, along with other materials in the drop box.
The affected materials and bins are then rolled into a large, black tent with a shiny, silver lining that can fit up to three carts and one bin for treatment.
The tent then must heat up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit — a temperature that will kill bedbugs and their larvae after at least an hour of sustained heat, said Gauthier.
McKay added that there are smaller, microwave-sized treatment tents at all of the branches as another measure. Once the treatment is complete, Gauthier said staff will inspect the materials once again and take out any debris.
It’s a process that happens almost every day, said Gauthier.
“The staff here are experts when it comes to looking for things,” said Gauthier. “It’s really top of mind in everything we do.”
Takala said spaces found to have bedbugs through visual inspections are treated with pesticides, typically by an outside pest control company.
McKay told The Spectator that the heat treatment tent was purchased by the institution back in 2021 for $3,000, while the smaller units cost between $200 and $300 each.
The library spends roughly $100,000 a year on bedbug treatments, with that including both regularly scheduled inspections as well as on-demand services, according to McKay.
While the heat treatment can slow down the turnaround for materials, Takala said the institution sees it as a “good preventative action,” even if it turns out there were no pests.
The library has worked to replace furniture in its facilities with pieces that are made with smooth materials as they easily cleaned and make it hard for “bugs to hide,” added Takala.
“We can’t stop bedbugs in the community,” said Takala. “But, we do everything we can to keep the risk as minimal as possible.”
Takala believes that there should be more public discussions around bedbugs and how the community can work together to “keep everyone safe.”
That includes more details on where bedbugs have been found in the city — whether it be a business, apartment building community centre or on a bus.
“We’re committed to access to information,” said Takala. “It is our responsibility to aim to provide as much transparency as we can and kind of set an example.”