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Bedbugs infest elders' public housing

Bedbugs live in more than a quarter of the units of a public housing apartment complex in downtown Lexington.

There are even bedbugs in the lobbies, said Fayette County health department inspectors who examined the buildings, which are designated for those 55 and older, earlier this month.

As a result, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Housing Authority plans to treat all 317 apartments in Ballard-Griffith Towers in an attempt to get bedbugs under control.

The move can't come soon enough for Teddi Smith-Robillard, who has been battling bedbugs since March in the complex off West Second Street in downtown Lexington.

Smith-Robillard, who is president of the buildings' resident council, has thrown out two mattress sets and gotten rid of all her upholstered furniture, except a chair that belonged to her mother.

"I've thrown out so much stuff, it's pitiful," she said.

She now sleeps sitting up on a straight-back, wooden chair, her feet propped on another. She tried sleeping on the floor, but the bedbugs got her there as well.

Bedbugs are small, flat, brownish insects that eat blood. They don't transmit disease, but their bites itch and annoy. Before World War II, bedbug problems were common in the United States. But the use of DDT, a pesticide now banned in this country, made the bugs rare.

However, bedbugs have made a comeback in recent years, and they are notoriously difficult to eliminate. Success takes a coordinated effort by pest control companies and residents, who have to bag and wash clothing; move furniture away from walls; and discard furniture that is too infested to be treated.

"If a total elimination or near total elimination isn't achieved, it doesn't take long for a reinfestation to occur," said Luke Mathis, an environmental health team leader at the health department.

Treating the apartment buildings will cost $30,000 to $50,000, said Austin Simms, executive director of the Housing Authority. The buildings will be treated with chemicals at least twice and possibly three times.

"We're going to do everything we can," Simms said.

The process won't be easy.

Already, the Housing Authority has held meetings with residents and sent out letters explaining what residents must do to prepare for the exterminators. No date has been set for the treatment to begin.

Simms says that he plans to allow residents to wash and dry clothes for free as part of the process — but getting all the clothes and bedding washed will still be a challenge.

Simms can't force people to get rid of furniture that exterminators decide is too infested to keep, and the Housing Authority doesn't have the money to help tenants buy new furniture.

And Simms has to figure out how to help residents who can't move furniture themselves and don't have friends or family members to help them.

Bedbug infestations can get particularly bad in housing for the elderly, said Richard Cooper, technical director of Cooper Pest Solutions, a New Jersey company, and one of the authors of The Complete Guide to Bed Bugs and Their Control.

Bad eyesight and skin conditions can make it difficult for some older people to notice that they have bedbugs. By the time an infestation is apparent, the bugs might have spread to other units, Cooper said. It takes the average person two to six months to notice bedbug problems.

In the case of Ballard-Griffith Towers, success will take a coordinated effort to keep the bedbugs at bay, Cooper said.

Officials will need to educate tenants and staff about how infestations start and how to prevent them. They'll need to inspect rooms regularly for signs of bedbugs and encase mattresses and box springs with specially designed covers. The covers protect uninfected mattresses and trap bugs in infected mattresses. They also make problems easier to see.

Cooper said that spraying an entire building is unnecessary, even when a large percentage of apartments are infected. Instead, exterminators should treat all apartments that share a common wall, ceiling or floor with an infected apartment.

"Whether or not they need to treat additional units is really questionable," Cooper said.

The pesticides work only on live bugs, so spraying where there are no bugs won't help, he said.

At Ballard-Griffith Towers, success will depend on how much tenants are able to prepare for the exterminators, Mathis said.

"If those tenant responsibilities aren't fulfilled, it's very difficult to eliminate bedbugs," Mathis said.

Mathis said he'd be glad to have volunteers to help with the effort.

And to encourage them, the health department will offer disposable Tyvek suits. That way the volunteers won't take home any bedbugs or their eggs.