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Last December 1, the Philadelphia Streets Department decided to take a stand against the infestation of bed bugs that have plagued eastern cities by declaring that sanitation crews would no longer remove mattresses left curbside unless they were sealed in protective plastic mattress wraps.
The new policy was announced via mail stuffers placed in utility bills. City officials asked block captains to spread the word among residents.
The department hoped the new policy would prevent further spread of the tiny insects that nest in mattresses and other furnishings, looking to feast on warm-blooded hosts.
There is evidence that hope may have been misplaced.
Block captains say there is resistance in neighborhoods to follow the new policy and buy mattress wraps, which cost between $5 and $10.
“I’m not going to say that people aren’t going to follow the procedures, I will say that they haven’t been,” said Marsha Wall, a block captain who is also president of the Southwest Community Advisory Group.
Wall says that since the change, she noticed mattresses discarded in vacant lots, dumped in front of abandoned buildings and, in some cases, just placed in front of the homes of other residents.
These community leaders fear the policy could have the unintended consequence of actually increasing the spread of bed bugs. Instead of being thrown into the bin of a trash truck, mattresses could linger on the streets or in empty lots.
“We have noticed a very modest increase in mattresses being dumped. Not very significant,” was the response from the Streets Department when asked if it had received an increase in complaints about mattress dumping since the new rules came into effect.
To test that assertion, I took camera in hand and toured one Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood with Tracey Gordon at the wheel. We covered a 10-block area ranging from 63rd to 72nd Streets.
It wasn’t necessary to drive more than a couple of blocks before we began spotting evidence of dumping. In all, we found seven locations where multiple mattresses had been discarded without protective plastic—all of them within a mile of one another.
“The policy may be exposing neighbors to more of the bed-bug infestation that the effort was intended to protect us from,” said Gordon.
Gordon, known for her efforts to beautify her Southwest community, drove from place to place, stopping each time discarded mattresses were discovered: 2100 S. 65th St., 6500 block of Paschal Ave., 65th and Windsor and on it went. Some were single mattresses discarded in or near a lot or place of business and others were piled, as many as three at one location.
The Streets Department admits that some changes might be needed.
“There is always a learning curve and a period of adjustment when regulations change,” said June Cantor of the Streets Department. “However, we have protocols in place to identify mattresses that are placed curbside without being bagged and also to identify illegally dumped mattresses. It will be a joint effort between collection crews, management and enforcement to stay on top of the situation as the public adjusts.”
Given the fact that it appeared that some of the mattresses uncovered during the tour had been there for quite some time, it’s not apparent when the “learning” and “adjustment” necessary will take place. What is known is that there is certainly dumping going on—at least in this neighborhood.
Wall said that this illegal dumping is a new phenomenon.
“Before the policy change, people would just put their mattresses out and the guys would pick them up and put them in the truck,” she said.
Wall and Gordon fear that if not addressed before the weather gets warmer, the time when bed bugs become most active, the mattresses may produce more infestations, with cats, dogs and kids lounging or playing on the mattresses—then taking the bed bugs back home.
The department does have a procedure to deal with dumped mattresses. According to Cantor, managers are instructed to inspect any mattresses for infestation. If they are infested, they will send a crew with proper protective gear to collect. If they are not infested, they will arrange for collection. Residents are urged to call 311 to report any sighting of dumped mattresses.
“We just have to follow the proper protocol to avoid the spread of the bed bugs,” said Cantor. “New York is a city of eight-million people, and they have the exact same regulation regarding mattresses and box springs.”
So what actually happens to those mattresses picked up by sanitation workers anyway?
“All of the city’s trash that is collected by the city of Philadelphia’s Sanitation Division is dumped at waste-to-energy facilities. This includes mattresses,” said Cantor. In other words, they are burned in trash-to-steam plants.
One of the main concerns of block captains and organizers who object to the new procedure is that it could further exacerbate the bed-bug problem in the city. How widespread is the problem? According to Mike Levy, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, very widespread.
“The bugs are really all over the city. They’re in North Philly and West Philly and South Philly and center city,” said Levy, who led the bed-bug research at Penn Medicine whose report was released in January.
According to the study, bed-bug activity increased in August and was at its lowest point in February. Bed-bug complaints increased nearly 70 percent between 2008 and 2011.
Residents fear that the warmer temperatures will cause a surge in the bed-bug population and say that it is essential that the city remove any and all mattresses, whether they are in protective plastic or not, to avoid any spread. Bed bugs are an annoyance but are not a health hazard.
Photo by Tracey Gordon