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More Bedbug Hysteria in Canadian Libraries

Two weeks ago, we revealed how a New York Times story relied on fear and misinformation to spread needless hysteria about bedbugs in public libraries. We spoke with many of the sources that reporter Catherine Saint Louis had relied on, including entomology professor Michael Potter, and discovered that the odds of getting a bedbug from a book in a library were “so low that it’s not even worth talking about.” Professor Potter was kind enough to provide us with a report which revealed that while bedbug incidents have increased holistically, the threat they pose to public libraries is well behind hotels, motels, college dorms, nursing homes, office buildings, public transportation, and movie theaters.

Yet in the past week, Saint Louis’s irresponsible reporting has inspired Canadian news outlets to engage in crass sensationalism. On December 13th, CBC News claimed that bedbugs were infesting multiple branches of the Vancouver Public Library. But the story relied upon hearsay from library patron Gail Meredith, who conveyed to the CBC that “the pest control people came to the conclusion that the only thing that was going on in my life that was likely to bring them in is my library books.” The article doesn’t confirm this with the pest control people, nor does it attempt to corroborate this incident with the VPL. (Robert Zimmerman, the only reporter listed in the article, did not reply to our request for comment.)

Reluctant Habits made several efforts to contact the Vancouver Public Library to determine the details of the 41 bedbug incidents cited by CBC News. There were phone calls and emails with VPL spokesman Stephen Barrington, who claimed that he was “between meetings.” By Friday morning, Barrington had fled his office for the rest of the year, as hard-working Canadians are wont to do. A helpful VPL employee named James Gemmill passed along a message to VPL chief librarian Sandra Singh. As of Friday afternoon, Reluctant Habits has not heard back from the VPL.

Fortunately, there were more explicit details from Toronto.

On Wednesday, the Toronto Star waded into these murky alarmist waters. Star photographer David Cooper claimed that his wife Peggi-jean had discovered three bedbugs in a checked out copy of Peter Robinson’s Watching the Dark. But Reluctant Habits has learned that the Coopers preferred breaking an attention-grabbing story to one of their employers rather than resolving their problem directly with the library. According to Toronto Public Library spokesperson Ana-Maria Critchley, the Coopers went straight to the Star rather than the Toronto Public Library.

“I’m not even sure if she returned the book,” said Critchley by telephone on Friday morning.

Critchley confirmed that the Toronto Public Library has indeed experienced its share of bedbug problems. In the past twelve months, there have been 24 bedbug incidents in thirteen branches. But the Star‘s Alyshah Hasham fudged the facts to fill in the sensationalist sudoku. Aside from the fact that these 24 bedbug incidents in the past year represented a drop from 30 incidents during the preceding year, it’s worth pointing out that thirteen of these incidents originated from chairs. The remaining eleven were located in books. This slight majority towards furniture is not the even split that Hasham claims it is. Additionally, the Star undercounted the items borrowed by Toronto Public Library patrons. I confirmed with Critchley by telephone and email that 33 million items were borrowed last year, not the 31 million claimed by Hasham.

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With only eleven reported incidents in 33 million books, your chance of getting a bedbug from an item checked out from the Toronto Public Library is 1 in 3,000,000. According to the National Weather Service, you stand a better chance of being struck by lightning three times during any given year. According to the National Safety Council, you are more likely to die from a dog attack, a flood, contact from hornets, wasps, and bees, a legal execution, or a fireworks discharge, or a flood.

I was able to reach Hasham on her cell phone on Friday afternoon to give her an opportunity to respond to this story. She told me that she could say nothing on the record until she had cleared it with her superiors. I also asked her how any person calling herself a journalist could spread alarmism like this, misrepresenting a minor problem. She responded off the record. I told her that she was doing tabloid journalism, not real journalism.

I left a voicemail with New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan on Friday morning to see if she could remark upon publishing a news story predicated upon a vastly overstated issue. Surely the Times bears some responsibility for inspiring other news outlets to generate attention over an overwrought problem. Much as Sullivan rebuffed my emails and my tweets, she did not return my call. She has, in fact, refused to address Saint Louis’s story. And while Sullivan and Saint Louis continue to remain silent about the Times‘s reportorial incompetence, other outlets continue to take their cues. Because a good yarn playing on a readership’s fears is more important than being accurate.

“I hear stories all the time about bedbugs in libraries,” said Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann by telephone on Friday morning. The entomology professor at Cornell had been quoted in the Star story. I asked Gangloff-Kaufmann if we could ever know from the Star story just how the Coopers contracted the bedbugs in Toronto.

“I don’t think we know,” she said. “I don’t know what his daily life is like. I don’t know what his neighbor does.”

Gangloff-Kaufmann said that it was likely that the Coopers’ bedbugs came to their home through the book, but pointed out that bedbugs are more likely to be found in furniture. “That goes for any place.”

When I asked Gangloff-Kaufmann if she felt that the recent spate of bedbug stories were founded on hysteria or misinformation, she didn’t wish to answer. But she did concede that the risk of contracting bedbugs from a library was out of proportion with certain responses.

“What is the risk? Fairly low. But the tolerance is zero.”

12/22 UPDATE: I asked entomologist Michael Potter for his thoughts on how bedbugs might have found their way into books in Toronto and Vancouver libraries. He informed me that there was a slight possibility of bedbugs congregating and laying eggs in the bindings and edges of hardcovers and paperbacks.

“If you had a heavily infested dwelling,” says Potter, “there’s always the likelihood that, with time, some bugs could move from former hiding sites and begin residing in books. How often this happens with books taken out from the library is anybody’s guess — infrequently for sure, although it can happen — just as you can pick up a stray bug here and there in any number of other activities.”

Potter told me that if books are situated near a permanent infestation (such as a nightstand next to a bed), the odds, despite being exceptionally minute, do increase. But he reports that worrying about contracting bugs from the library is “certainly no more than obsessing over picking them up from the dry cleaner, cozy upholstered booth of your favorite restaurant, taxi cab or bus seat, or your kids coming home from school for the holidays.”

He was kind enough to provide the following picture, showing books that were permanently stored in a heavily infested apartment:

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“For people who remain concerned about the prospects of bed bugs being transported into their homes on library books,” says Potter, “they can do a quick spot check for signs of the little black fecal spots. Do I do this when I check out books? No. Nor do I go to the trouble of storing my suitcase in the bathtub when I stay in hotels, opting instead for a cursory inspection of the bed and headboard area.”

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The Bedbug Bunk: How the New York Times Used Fear and Misinformation to Spread Public Library Hysteria

On Wednesday afternoon, the New York Times published a story written by Catherine Saint Louis claiming that public libraries were now devoting precious resources to a new threat: bedbugs nesting inside the spines of hardcover books and making their way into public libraries like Norway rats stowing away on dusty ships.

The piece, which drew understandable horror on Twitter on Thursday morning, was the seventh most emailed New York Times story by Thursday afternoon.

But Reluctant Habits has talked with many of Saint Louis’s sources and has learned that the Times article is misleading. Bedbugs are not the major threat that Saint Louis suggests they are. In fact, some of the library directors who Saint Louis spoke with have never had a bedbug epidemic at all. They were merely taking preventive measures in the wake of recent media stories.

“We actually never had an infestation,” said Mary Schubart by telephone on Wednesday evening. Schubart, the library director of the Islip Public Library, was described in the article as taking action against bedbugs “after reading about their alarming resurgence.” But the “resurgence” that Schubart was referring to was the national panic. Schubart told me that the only books believed to have bedbugs under her watch didn’t come from her library, but through interlibrary loan. If bedbugs weren’t a severe problem for Islip’s libraries, why then did Schubart react with such an over-the-top measure?

“I saw the media going crazy a year or two ago,” said Schubart, who also cited a “personal abhorrence to little legs” as one of the reasons she started buying pestilence-resistant furniture for her branches. Schubart wanted to appease an antsy staff and keep her regulars appreciative. The “quarterly” visits made by the bedbug-sniffing dogs cited in the Times article were initially “monthly.”

While Schubart doesn’t regret her vigilance, she does have small worries about how Saint Louis’s reportorial approach could result in a needless panic. “I think that the article could create some hype that isn’t necessarily called for.”

Cynthia Berner Harris, the Director of Libraries for the Wichita Public Library system, also confirmed with me on Thursday that she had bagged books “as a purely precautionary measure” after confirming bugs in a seating area. The bugs were not in the books. She said that she has had only two previous instances “where library consumers forewarned us that materials on loan to them had become infested with bedbugs.” But because of Wichita’s better-safe-than-sorry safeguards, which includes staff training and close attention to the types of chairs purchased, the bedbug situation is under control.

“Let’s not get crazed,” said Sue Feir on Thursday morning. “We were proactive.” Feir, library director at Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, was also singled out in the Times piece as someone taking a bedbug problem into her own hands and for “sending an email blast.” But she told me that none of the library materials had been affected. Only the corner of one bookshelf had a problem.

“The area most cited for furniture/bedbugs,” said Feir, “is an area of the library where people often sit, but do not handle books. Multiple chairs may have become problematic because they are moved around.”

Feir said she had never had a problem with bedbugs before, but she did suspect that institutions don’t talk about bedbugs due to embarrassment. “It is hardly a subject people bring up over coffee.”

* * *

“She called me at least three times,” said Michael Potter by telephone on Thursday morning. Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, told me that he had spent three hours on the phone with Saint Louis patiently discussing the issue. “I really tried to emphasize that, while libraries should be vigilant, we must also have a dose of caution about all this.”

Yet despite the considerable minutes that Potter racked up in explicative overtime with the Times, Saint Louis opted to use only one sentence: “There’s no question in past few years there are more and more reports of bedbugs showing up in libraries.” This served in sharp contrast to a 2010 appearance Potter made on Fresh Air, where interviewer Terry Gross allowed Potter to explain late in the segment that while bedbugs remained a problem, the risk was quite low.

“I guess I get troubled when you spend an inordinate amount of time and hope that it will be an educational tool for the public. Instead, it turns out that you whip people in a frenzy.”

When I asked Potter if he had any hard stats about how likely it was to contract bedbugs from the library, he informed me, with a twinge of exasperation in his voice, that the chances were extremely slim. Worrying about bedbugs in a public library was akin to being afraid to leave the house because you might get struck by lightning.

“The odds of you picking up a bedbug from a book in a library are so low that it’s not even worth talking about,” said Potter.

So what were the reports that Potter had been referring to? It turns out that in 2011, Potter had co-authored a survey with Kenneth F. Haynes, Bob Rosenberg, and Missy Henriksen called “2011 Bugs Without Borders.” (Professor Potter has graciously allowed Reluctant Habits to recirculate the survey. The full PDF can be downloaded here.)

The survey reveals that while, on the whole, bedbug incidents have increased, the threat within libraries is well behind hotels, motels, college dorms, nursing homes, office buildings, public transportation, and movie theaters.

“I mean, these kinds of articles need to provide some balance in terms of this problem because we’re developing a paranoia for some people who hear these sound bytes.”

“All of the hallmarks of an epidemic can be found when there’s no disease,” said Philip Alcabes, Director of the Public Health Program at Adelphi’s Center for Health Innovation. Alcabes suggested to me that the bedbug panic corroborates with some of the concerns he expressed in his book, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics.

“Bedbugs cause itching, of course, but they don’t spread any systemic illness and nobody dies from them. The key is that the problem seems to be spreading and that it stands in for — and reflects back to us — our social anxieties, our worries that the culture has somehow gone too far.”

So why would the New York Times feed reader anxieties rather than serve up the facts?

I made efforts to contact both Saint Louis and New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan on Thursday afternoon, but neither returned my request for comment. I did, however, receive an email from Joseph Burgess, claiming that “the public editor can’t speak on behalf of The Times‘s policies.”

In the meantime, the Times article continues to make the rounds. Is there any hope for a rational consideration of the bedbug problem?

“People can’t be expected to be perfectly reasonable all the time,” said Alcabes. “In an era without witches or angels or signs in the sky, the epidemic offers a context in which some irrational behavior becomes acceptable. Which isn’t a bad deal, in some ways.”

12/7 UPDATE: Brooke Borel, author of the forthcoming book Suck: The Tale of the Bed Bug, has also responded to Saint Louis’s article. She points out that Saint Young is outright wrong in declaring that bedbugs have only just “discovered a new way to hitchhike” through books. “This is an ancient pest, and it has been doing its thing for at least thousands of years. Probably far, far longer.” She also reiterates what entomologists have been telling me over the past two days. The risk is low. “You aren’t very likely to pick up bed bugs in these types of public spaces. The bugs are far more highly concentrated in residences, where they can breed and multiply in close proximity to their food source.”

12/17 UPDATE: A commenter named Joe alerted me to this article, in which CBC News claims that bedbugs are infesting multiple branches of the Vancouver Public Library. The story is suspicious, because it relies upon the hearsay of library patron Gail Meredith conveying to the reporter that “the pest control people came to the conclusion that the only thing that was going on in my life that was likely to bring them in is my library books.” But the story doesn’t confirm this fact with the pest control people, nor does it attempt to corroborate this incident with the VPL. On Monday morning, I spoke with VPL spokesman Stephen Barrington by phone just before he was about to hit a Monday morning meeting. He said that he didn’t have his notes in front of him to spell out the details of the bedbug incidents alleged by CBC News, but that he would try to get back to me later in the afternoon to give me details. I will report any additional details I learn from Mr. Barrington.

12/21 UPDATE: There have been a number of stories circulating in Canadian news outlets about bedbugs in public libraries (including the above-referenced CBC News story). We’ve looked into these claims in a second investigative piece on Vancouver Public Library and Toronto Public Library.