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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.

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27 Comments

  1. I see what you’re saying, and I agree that we don’t need to panic or avoid libraries. But nobody has a bedbug problem “on the corner of one bookshelf” or in just one or two chairs. If you spot bed bugs anywhere in a building, you most likely have bugs and eggs hiding elsewhere, which means you have a serious problem — because all bed bug infestations are serious problems.

    Bed bugs entering the library (and potentially people’s homes) on infested materials would also be cause for serious concern if this is in fact happening. I imagine there’s a very low chance of any individual book bringing bugs into your home — and that it may be about zero — but libraries, like all public places, should be taking the epidemic seriously.

    I also don’t think this should be downplayed because bed bug bites aren’t poisonous. Bed bug infestations ruin people’s lives for years. I’ve lived through it myself, and the sleep deprivation and anxiety are horrible — and getting rid of them is extremely difficult and expensive.

    We can’t go through life avoiding all public places, so I agree that we shouldn’t panic — but it’s not because bed bugs isn’t that bad. It’s an absolute nightmare, and people are justified in being very concerned about it.

  2. Lynn: Please read the story again. The threat, as confirmed by all the people I talked with, is considerably overstated. The bedbug threats that were found on furniture never made made it onto library materials. Much of the furniture containing a low risk of infestation has been replaced by uncomfortable vinyl chairs. Libraries are taking this, as clearly indicated in this article, far more seriously than they need to be. But on the bright side, these over-the-top preventive measures have made public libraries extremely safe for everybody.

  3. To be fair, Saint Louis noted in the article that the Islip library’s actions were proactive, rather than a reaction to a bed bug problem at the library.

    It wasn’t my impression that Catherine Saint Louis misrepresented the problem.

    That readers react in a hysterical manner is partly because bed bugs have the “ewww” factor and just tend to elicit that type of response, and also because many people had never thought of bed bugs being in a library before.

    Is it very common? Absolutely not, but it HAS happened in many libraries in the past year.

    And you have to understand also that a few years ago, people were still being told bed bugs did not infest places like schools and libraries because they’re nocturnal. That’s misinformation and it’s good for people to be aware this is possible.

    Should we panic? Absolutely not. But people with bed bugs should think twice about tossing them into a book drop, and everyone should learn to recognize signs of bed bugs (fecal stains, cast skins, bed bugs) in case they ever do encounter them on a train, in a hotel, or in a library.

  4. Sorry, that should read,

    “…people with bed bugs should think twice about tossing books which may have been exposed to them into a book drop.”

  5. [...] may be interested in this response to the New York Times story from Reluctant Habits; the author, Edward Champion, noted in his blog post, “The Bedbug Bunk: How the New York [...]

  6. No, actually, you can have a few budbugs here and there and then get rid of them and the problem is over. We had budbugs is one of the staff areas of the library where I work (not the bookshelves or even the public areas) and it was taken care of fairly quickly. That was two years ago and we have not had a problem since.

  7. Let me start by saying that I agree that the risk posed by bed bugs on books in libraries is NOT a reason to stop using libraries. The chance you actually borrow a book with bed bugs is one in a million but a simple education to both parties (libraries and patrons) can go a long way in preventing a rare-nightmare from occuring.

    I think the amount of libraries that have dealt with at least a few books with bed bugs is much higher than most think. In some of your major cities there’s actually a smaller portion of libraries that haven’t had at least one book returned with bed bugs compared to the ones that have. Again, you’re still talking about one in a million of borrowing the couple books that may have had an issue and therefore not something that should prevent you from using the library. The issue with stories like this is that there is no data on the topic because most libraries that have or are currently dealing with this don’t want to comment for fear of negative publicity.

    Therefore finding the library to quote “yes we had bed bugs in a book” is almost impossible and an unfair criticism to the writer. In fact, I’d question what the writer of this rants opinion “of taking it far more serious than need be” is based upon? I’ve had personal conversations with many companies servicing libraries across the country and know first hand that many have dealt with at least on incidence of bed bugs. Also, simple proactive measures to prevent that from happening can save excessive amounts of money reacting to the issue after it happens. Cost to inspect libraries, heat treat books, treat chairs, etc… where bugs may be found once they make it in is an expense many libraries can’t afford. I’ve seen the bills first hand of what it costs to react to an introduction of bed bugs and it can easily get into the thousands of dollars. Why not prevent that from happening as best as possible and choose furniture that is easy to treat and inspect and less hospitable to bed bugs?

    Every library should be trained on what a bed bug looks like, how to answer questions about them properly and taught to complete a 5 second inspection of books before they go back on the shelf. Simple measures like that could prevent tons of poor PR and an occasional disaster from happening. Every patron should also know what a bed bug looks like to prevent them from taking one home on a book. There’s a certain portion of society that no matter how you write about bed bugs hysteria will ensue. Therefore do you hold the information back from those that would weigh the risk properly and use the information to their advantage because of a few hysterical folks? To me that’s a bigger disservice than sharing the information to begin with.

  8. Sarah wrote,

    “No, actually, you can have a few budbugs here and there and then get rid of them and the problem is over.”

    Of course you can, but where is anyone stating otherwise?

    And note that the likelihood of your getting rid of the problem quickly increases if your staff and patrons know what a bed bug (and other signs) look like, and know how to respond.

  9. The Time and New York Times article seem to be wanting to cause a panic so more people will go with an e-reader, a device where you have to pay to “rent” books until the seller decides you no longer get to read them. In my opinion, the panic is completely manufactured as a way of manipulating the public away from libraries over to making a purchase, which is greedy and sneaky.

  10. Well I hate to tell all the naysayers this is not a new thing.

    As a collector of odd bedbug artifacts I have a book from 1811 with significant faecal trace signs on it,t he book was removed from library circulation in the 1930′s and sat in a private archive for years until it came into my hands.

    So what does this tell us? Bedbugs in books is not new, its happened before and will most likley happen again. Given that the book went out of public circulation before the “eradication” of bedbugs and was from a home with no bedbugs its the smoking bullet as it were.

    Now since most people read at home either in bed or on the sofa it is logical that a non bite responder who may not even be aware of their infestation could accidentally infest a book that is returned to the library and therefore inadvertently cause the infestation of another.

    The only way to cut this source out is to use a method such as PackTite that works to remove any bedbugs from books before they go back into circulation. I specifically mention this product because I have tested all the other options on the market and have failed them due to cool spots inside the units.

    This will remain necessary until there is better education on the early detection of bedbugs and people stop bringing them accidentally into libraries int he first place. Sadly you cant expect the pest management industry to lead the charge on that subject given that “they are in the business of treating infestation not preventing them”.

    David Cain

  11. As a precaution, my wife microwaved her novels purchased at a used bookstore. The gold in the cover of one book burned and damaged the cover. As a bed bug experienced entomologist, I agree with David’s recommendation of the PackTite as the best option for this application.

  12. As someone painfully allergic to the bites of these bugs, I can assure you that they are a health risk for someone like me.

    My bites would swell in some areas of my body to the size of a nerd football. Some of them continued to bleed and some weeped clear fluid. They were itchy, but they could be painful. Some frequent bite areas developed bruising and I still have significant scarring from the bites.

    The treatment for the bugs left poisons all over my home from a terrible misapplication–common in NYC where landlords cut corners. The most significant was the drone dust–a fine dust not intended for use in the open air. In my apartment it was on my furnishings, my floor and my bed! It can cause serious respiratory issues applied this way and experienced those for months after moving out. I am a performer by trade which makes it significant issue.

    I eventually moved out and abandoned many of my personal belongings. I estimate the cost of replacing items and treatment at 5k-7k. AS A RENTER. if I owned the place, I might have spent twice or three times more dealing with treating the building.

    For these reasons alone, i don’t view these as a “no-big-deal” pest.

  13. [...] NYT says that bedbugs in libraries are a big problem. Except that’s not true and several sources were misinterpreted. And here’s Brooke Borel’s good [...]

  14. Bedbugs and libraries areen’t the issue; the New York Times is. It no longer rises to the level of reporting or integrity as befits the nation’s premier newspaper. It’s a larger, gussied up NY Post.

  15. [...] Creationism In Schools Via ‘Truth In Education’ Bill Beware all you field researchers The Bedbug Bunk: How the New York Times Used Fear and Misinformation to Spread Public Library Hyster… Wine, Beer, and [...]

  16. [...] of libraries affected by bed bugs.  Shortly after, Reluctant Habits countered the story with “The Bedbug Bunk: How The New York Times Used Fear And Misinformation To Spread Public Library Hyster…” calling it misleading saying the New York Times used fear and misinformation to bring attention [...]

  17. [...] Louis’ reporting: Ed Champion of Reluctant Habits (formerly of the Bat Segundo Show) wrote a typically iconoclastic post accusing the Times piece of misleading readers and exaggerating the threat of bedbugs. To bolster [...]

  18. [...] Louis’ reporting: Ed Champion of Reluctant Habits (formerly of the Bat Segundo Show) wrote a typically iconoclastic post accusing the Times piece of misleading readers and exaggerating the threat of bedbugs. To bolster [...]

  19. [...] NYT says that bedbugs in libraries are a big problem. Except that’s not true and several sources were misinterpreted. And here’s Brooke Borel’s good [...]

  20. [...] blogger complained that the article was fearmongering by suggesting that the problem for libraries and patrons is much greater than the reality of the [...]

  21. [...] There is apparently some confusion about this problem, so as Kyle has suggested below, it might be a good idea to read this article as well:  http://www.edrants.com/the-bedbug-bunk-how-the-new-york-times-used-fear-and-misinformation-to-spread… [...]

  22. Until you have opened a book and had a bedbug crawl on you, there is nothing to say. PS bedbugs will hide in dvd cases also. What libraries need is a zero tolerance policy and to charge those returning buggy books. And not let them cko until they prove with documentation they are bug free. Sadly those libraries that have rfid that remove human examination of materials from the equation will spread bedbugs faster than less automated libraries. Most directors are not on the frontlines handling these materials so their input is questionable.

  23. dear Shhhh….pre RFID we never inspected books either….we would spend our entire opening hours inspecting materials….

  24. @David Cain: Do you have any experience with freezing smaller bedbug-infected (or potentially infected) items like books? We lived for many years in Africa, and this is what I used to do to prevent other sorts of insect infestations, for example from weevils or woodworm. The deep freeze has to be quite cold (at least -15 °C or lower, I reckon), and you need to leave the item in there for a few days.

  25. I have known about bed bugs for a long time and remember having to place our bed mattress outside on sunny Saturdays to “Air” them and that sunlight also killed any bed bugs that may be on them.

    I think bugs are just what we have to put up with as humans living on an animal infested planet.

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