National program stops pests in public housing

Siavash Taravati, an urban IPM advisor at the University of California, demonstrates a bed bug inspection to housing staff at a StopPests training.

When an apartment in a public housing building on Long Island became infested with bedbugs in 2015, managers called StopPests in Housing for help.

The program, part of the Northeastern Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Center headquartered at Cornell University, provides free IPM technical assistance, consultations, training and resources for pest control to federally subsidized housing sites nationwide.

In the Long Island case, an apartment resident waited to report a problem and the bedbugs became intractable. Following consultation and training with StopPests’ staff, the building’s management renovated the apartment and replaced vinyl flooring where bugs were hiding. They then repeatedly heat-treated the apartment. But each time, a few weeks later, the resident reported the bugs had returned. Finally, they realized the resident’s wig was the source of the re-infestations.

Now, to keep ahead of pest problems, the housing authority monitors apartments with a canine team that sniffs out bugs. Residents are also advised against bringing in furniture from dumpsters and the street, and building staff looks for signs of infestations in every apartment they enter. Two of the last inspections resulted in zero hits and a third turned up a single bedbug, likely a recent introduction.

“Every building is like a puzzle and you have to figure out in each unique situation what the reasons are for pest control failure,” said Susannah Reese, project coordinator for StopPests in Housing. “When we take an integrated pest management approach to bedbugs, cockroaches and rodents, we look at prevention and nonchemical controls instead of just relying on monthly pesticide application, which overexposes people to pesticides. We try to encourage a team approach where everybody has a role to play.”

Public housing authorities generally use a low-bid contract system with local exterminators who do the bare minimum. “To make a profit, a company has to get through as many apartments as possible in a day, so they’re going in with a Band-Aid approach spraying pesticides, which kills some bugs but doesn’t solve the problem” Reese said.

Spraying is often ineffective against cockroaches and bedbugs: Insects quickly gain resistance, they hide, and sprays require bugs to walk over the chemicals, which degrade with time. Also, residents – including elderly and disabled people who are home all day, and children – are exposed to pesticides. StopPests tries to convince contractors to use baits for cockroaches, which are much more effective and safer than sprays, Reese said.

In 2016, StopPests personnel were called in when bed bugs – which experienced a resurgence in the early 2000s, likely due to chemical resistance and travelers who spread the bugs – infested 28 apartments in a 120-unit high-rise in a public housing authority in Central New York. With assistance from StopPests, the authority’s staff helped educate residents; they also sealed and caulked cracks to prevent spread, provided free washers and dryers for residents to launder infested items, and purchased a portable heat chamber to treat furniture, wheelchairs and other hard to treat items.

The small housing authority was paying roughly $6,200 per month to the contracted exterminator, a sum that dropped to an average of $3,500 per month, adding up to an annual savings of more than $32,000.

StopPests creates webinars and picture-based fact sheets for public housing residents who may have low literacy levels or who are not native English speakers. They are also collaborating with researchers to conduct studies before and after IPM treatments to gauge pesticide residue levels, and cockroach and mouse allergens (which have been linked to asthma).

Since 2007, StopPests has provided in-person IPM training to more than 100 housing sites nationally – including public housing, Section 8, and tribal housing – as well as technical assistance and online training to hundreds more.

StopPests has been funded since 2007 through an interagency agreement between the United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Northeast IPM Center has existed since 2000 and is also supported with funds from USDA NIFA.

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Lindsey Knewstub