BIDDEFORD — When Lorna Girouard first saw a pest control van parked outside her Alfred Street apartment building in March, she assumed it was addressing a problem with ants.

Within days, she realized she was wrong: The building had bedbugs. The infestation spread quickly through the building, and since March tenants and building management have been working with a pest control company to eliminate the bedbugs.

It’s been a slow process that relies heavily on the cooperation of tenants — most of them elderly or disabled — to wash all of their clothing and remove clutter from their apartments before the pests are killed with chemicals or high heat.

“It’s been awful,” said Girouard, 59. “It just makes your skin crawl. There isn’t anyone I know who wants to lie in bed and get bit by bugs.”

While the company that manages Girouard’s building at 87 Alfred St. has been responsive to the problem, that is not always in the case, says Roby Fecteau, Biddeford’s director of code enforcement.

Prompted by a growing number of complaints about bedbugs, sometimes as many as 10 per week, Fecteau plans to propose an ordinance that would give his staff authority to address whenever landlords or tenants are not doing their part to get rid of a bedbug infestation.

If Biddeford adopts an ordinance to deal with bedbugs, it would not be alone, said Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association. Twenty-two states and a growing number of counties and municipalities now have regulations outlining areas of responsibility for landlords and tenants dealing with infestations, she said.

What the law says

Bedbugs — hard-to-kill insects that feed on blood — appeared in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, but disappeared for decades before re-emerging about 10 years ago. They spread easily, hiding in dark, protected areas like the seams of mattresses and behind baseboards.

Because bedbugs are not known to carry disease and are not considered a health threat, there is no central reporting agency that collects national statistics on the presence of the insect. Maine does not track reports of bedbugs, nor do most municipalities.

There are 22 states with laws related to bedbugs, although the scope of the legislation varies greatly. In Illinois, the Railroad Sanitation Act requires railcars used by the public to be free of bedbugs, while Iowa only requires migrant labor camps to establish bedbug control measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Most laws deal with requirements around notification and treatment of infestations in hotels, motels and schools.

Maine and Rhode Island are the only New England states with laws related to bedbugs. While Maine’s law outlines landlord and tenant responsibilities during infestations, Rhode Island’s law only requires commercial pesticide applicators who treat bedbugs to be certified by the state.

Maine’s law outlines the responsibilities of landlords and tenants when a bedbug infestation is suspected or identified: Tenants are obligated to notify landlords of bedbugs, and landlords in turn are required to inspect for them within five days. Both tenants and landlords are required to cooperate in the process or rid the building of bedbugs.

“It’s very difficult for us to do any sort of enforcement with the way the law is written,” Fecteau said, noting that under state law, it is tenants who can bring a landlord to court, not the city.

Climbing number of complaints

During the past few months, the number of complaints about bedbugs in apartment buildings in Biddeford has crept up from occasional to as many as 10 per week, Fecteau said. Most complaints come from tenants in multi-unit apartment buildings in densely populated neighborhoods.

It is not unusual for people to show up at the code enforcement office with a small bag or jar of bedbugs. It happens frequently enough the staff is no longer fazed by evidence of an infestation, and some areas of city hall are now checked monthly by dogs specially trained to locate bedbugs. The public works department picks up abandoned furniture with two pieces of equipment so employees don’t have to handle it and possibly carry bedbugs into their own homes.

About three months ago, a city inspector issued a civil summons to a landlord who had a bedbug infestation but was not taking care of it. The case was thrown out in court when a judge ruled the city didn’t have the authority to cite the landlord, Fecteau said.

“Our hands are tied,” Fecteau said. “People are very upset this is happening. They feel frustrated if they don’t feel the landlord is doing what he’s supposed to do.”

Fecteau said it also is important to hold tenants responsible for participating in a bedbug management plan because treatments can be ineffective if tenants don’t cooperate.

In other Maine cities, officials say most landlords and tenants are responsive to complaints about bedbugs. In Portland, the number of bedbug complaints has declined from 51 in 2007 to 33 in 2012, said Tammy Munson, director of inspections for the city. She said most tenants and landlords work together to immediately address an infestation, thought the city has in the past taken landlords to court to force a response.

“When it first started, it was a big deal,” Munson said. “We’re used to those types of complaints now.”

In Lewiston, there was a surge of bedbug complaints around 2008, but the problem has declined since then, said code enforcement officer Thomas Maynard. His office has fielded one complaint in the past three weeks.

Maynard credits the decline in bedbug complaints to the city’s “assertive” campaign to educate landlords and tenants about the insect and how to avoid infestations. The city’s property maintenance code allows him to cite property owners who do not deal with infestations. Generally, landlords are “really good” about hiring professional exterminators, he said.

“It’s not typical for them to do nothing,” Maynard said. “Overall, I think we’ve been pretty effective in dealing with bedbugs. I expected it to be a whole lot worse than it has been. It could have been really nightmarish.”

The key to prevention

Experts say education is key to dealing with infestations and preventing the spread of bedbugs.

“It’s all about educating the public and making sure they’re looking out for signs of bedbugs,” said Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Katie McGovern, a staff attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, said tenants should also educate themselves on their rights. Pine Tree Legal’s website includes information about the state law and a form that tenants can use to notify landlords of a suspected infestation. Tenants who call for legal assistance are often stressed and frustrated, she said.

“It’s a very upsetting to be in that situation and have your home infested with bedbugs,” she said. “It’s a Catch-22. They don’t want to be there anymore, but they don’t want to bring bedbugs to a new unit.”

Ralph Blumenthal, operations director for Atlantic Pest Solutions in Arundel, said people should be proactive about preventing the spread of bedbugs, but also must understand the important role tenants and homeowners play in treating infestations.

People can avoid spreading bedbugs by promptly washing clothing after traveling and not picking up discarded furniture from the side of the road.

Once an infestation occurs, Blumenthal said it is essential for residents to cooperate with the treatment plan, which can include washing and drying their clothes and bedding and removing clutter where bedbugs hide.

“We know one of the biggest issues we have as a pest management company is lack of tenant cooperation,” Blumenthal said. “They most daunting part of preparation is the laundry issue. It’s very daunting.”

Girouard, the Biddeford resident, said it was very time-consuming and expensive to prepare her apartment to be treated for bedbugs. She has spent $40 washing all of her clothes and linens and worries her elderly neighbors are struggling with the same process.

So bothered by bedbugs bites, Girouard visited a doctor three times. Frustrated by the infestation, she moved out of her apartment at 1 a.m. and stayed with family for three months.

“It’s not a nice thing when you go to bed to have to experience that,” she said. “Nobody wants to see you come to their place after that.”

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