Questions and answers from Public Services and Procurement Canada about bedbugs

Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) is committed to providing safe and productive work environments in more than 1500 properties across Canada.

Recently, there have been confirmed reports of the presence of bedbugs in a small percentage of PSPC inventory which have received significant attention in the media. In each of these cases, PSPC’s pest management action plan initiated actions to address the situation.

Bedbugs can be seen with the naked eye and are similar to an apple seed in size and appearance. They are most likely to be found in seams, cracks and crevices around beds, sofas or chairs.

Creating and maintaining a pest-free workplace is a collective responsibility. To increase education and awareness surrounding bedbugs in the workplace, PSPC has engaged expert entomologist, Dr. Murray Isman, to provide responses to the following frequently asked questions:

  1. What is the history of bedbugs in Canada?
    Bedbugs have probably been in this country for as long as there has been human habitation. Following the Second World War, the introduction of chemical insecticides for urban pest management led to such significant reductions in bedbug incidence that these pests actually became quite rare in most Canadian cities from the mid-1960s, to the end of the 20th century. Beginning around 2000, reports of bedbugs in urban settings began to increase dramatically, and the resurgence of these pests as a major problem was recognized by entomologists and pest control experts by 2003. While they are often associated with high density residential settings that have a high degree of transient residents and lower-than-general hygienic standards, they have also reappeared in hotels—even the most exclusive and expensive—and many other places where there is high turnover of occupants—public libraries, hospitals, office buildings, movie theatres, commercial aircraft, trains, cruise ships, etc. There is no direct correlation between cleanliness and the presence of bedbugs.
  2. Are bedbugs a health risk?
    No, bedbugs are not known to vector any disease-causing pathogens to humans unlike many other blood-feeding arthropods (mosquitoes, ticks, sandflies). However, humans show a wide range of reactions to bedbug bites, as they do to mosquitoes, ranging from no noticeable reaction to itchy, inflamed bites. People who are repeatedly bitten by bedbugs can develop sensitivity to the bites, including allergic reactions. For most people, the bites are not a significant health issue, however, fear of bedbugs or the possibility of being bitten can cause considerable anxiety and insomnia in some individuals.
  3. What are some tips to preventing bedbugs?
    Bedbugs do not fly or jump, so they can only be introduced into a new environment by hitch-hiking with humans. Unlike lice, they only go onto humans for feeding (10 to 15 minutes) and otherwise are not found on the body. Instead, they are transported in our personal effects—suitcases, backpacks, handbags and folded clothing, and therefore the best means of preventing the introduction of bedbugs is to avoid placing those items in or on places where bedbugs are likely to be hiding.
  4. Are office buildings an ideal environment for bedbug reproduction?
    No, office workplaces are not ideal environments for bedbugs as they feed primarily at night and they must have a blood meal to produce eggs and each immature stage of the insect must have a blood meal to develop to the next stage. If the introduction of new bedbugs into a building from other sources can be curtailed, then population growth will depend primarily on the number of adult bugs and the availability of hosts. If the former is rather small, and/or the opportunity to bite humans is limited, then the population will grow very slowly.
  5. What is considered an infestation?
    The Oxford Dictionary definition of infestation is “the presence of an unusually large number of insects or animals in a place, typically so as to cause damage or disease.” According to a prominent American pest management professional, “To many people, infestation implies a widespread and large population of bedbugs that is reproducing and growing, which is not the typical situation in offices. Use the word sparingly.” If the frequency of visual observations of bedbugs, or the numbers of observers is clearly increasing over time—taking into account the heightened awareness of staff—then it might be reasonable to use the term infestation. But the situation in offices is quite different from that in a hotel or dormitory where the population of insects increases owing to frequent feeding on humans resulting in reproduction of the bugs. A more useful working definition of infestation would be “a population of pests sufficiently large to warrant specific action(s) to mitigate or eliminate that population.”

    To date, bedbug detections within PSPC assets has been a “presence” only and not infestations.
  6. What treatment options exist for removing confirmed bedbugs?
    The degree of infestation should be verified by monitoring bedbug-specific traps and/or canine inspections. The decision as to what treatments are required should be left to professional pest control operators who have experience dealing with these pests. Minor infestations can be managed by a combination of vacuuming and steaming selected areas where bedbugs are found to harbor and by treating specific areas with chemical or non-chemical products. Heavier infestations may require the use of a registered insecticide.
  7. When bedbugs are found on a floor or in an isolated area of a building, do you recommend fumigating or applying a chemical treatment to the entire building?
    No, a more scientifically sound and nuanced approach would be to treat an area of an office building with confirmed bedbug reports and then closely monitor adjacent floors and sections. While bedbugs are capable of spreading throughout a building, and their movement between rooms can be exacerbated by chemical (pesticide) treatments, fumigating an entire building would never be recommended except in cases where there was demonstrably a heavy infestation, well distributed throughout the building. In some cases, where left untreated, bedbug populations can grow significantly. However in the office workspace this is a far less likely situation.
  8. Would you recommend applying a chemical treatment to a building as a preventative measure?
    No, applying a chemical treatment as a preventative measure is never encouraged. Insecticide application or fumigation carries with it its own health risks and the best way to mitigate those risks is to mitigate exposure. That being said, there is little rationale for treating areas for which bedbugs have not been observed/detected. The central tenet of modern pest management is to apply chemicals (or other treatments) judiciously and as a last resort, and only when monitoring for pests confirms their presence and the need for mitigating action.
  9. Would it be useful to proactively do canine inspections to check for bedbugs in all federal buildings across Canada?
    No, canine inspections performed as a proactive measure are not conducted as this would be costly, time-consuming, and potentially distracting from other significant workplace health issues. The cost must be weighed against the probability of detecting bedbugs and the severity of the impact on employees. Given that bedbugs are introduced into a new environment on human personal effects like suitcases, backpacks, and handbags, the utility to performing canine inspections as a proactive measure is only a benefit until the next one is brought into the environment. As the prevalence of bedbugs in office buildings varies greatly across the country, actions are best “complaint-driven”.
  10. Are there concerns with employees returning to work following a chemical treatment, even if a follow-up inspection has not yet been completed?
    No, employees returning to work after initial treatment is an industry standard and while treatment with a chemical insecticide, whether in an agricultural or urban setting, is hardly ever 100% effective at eliminating the target pest, the risks would be greatly diminished.
  11. Is complete eradication of bedbugs possible in our federal buildings?
    In a complex physical environment like an office building, it can be difficult to completely eradicate bedbugs because there are many places for them to hide and it can be nearly impossible to reach all such places with a chemical treatment, even through fumigation. Likewise it would be nearly impossible to reach all such places with a vacuum cleaner or with a steam applicator. However, an insecticide (either chemical or mineral) with some residual action, applied properly and thoroughly by a professional, can reduce bedbug populations to a point where the insects are rarely, if ever, observed. Such treatments are more likely to achieve success in areas where the pest population is quite low prior to treatment. And this “success” will only continue if the re-introduction of bedbugs from other sources is also strongly curtailed.
  12. What further action can be taken by the federal government in order to deal with these incidences?
    The Government of Canada is taking all appropriate actions—consistent with professional pest management in all major jurisdictions—to alleviate this particular pest problem in its buildings. Because we know that bedbugs are introduced into the workplace by hitchhiking in the personal belongings or clothing of employees and/or clients, the long term success in tackling this issue will require a team approach between the employer and its employees. Clear and concise communication to employees regarding this issue and the heightened awareness of their potential role in solving the issue should be a key element of the action plan.
  13. Are there factors that put certain buildings/homes at more risk to bedbugs than others?
    There are 2 factors that can increase the risk of bedbugs becoming established in a building. The first is the transient nature of the occupants, whether they are employees or clients. If there is a high turnover of occupants, there is a greater opportunity for the introduction of bedbugs from outside sources (homes, apartments, hotels). This is why hotels, dormitories, hospitals and cruise ships have been particularly vulnerable to this pest problem. The second has to do with the work or home environment itself. Bedbugs need places to harbor when they are not seeking hosts or directly feeding; these harborages are where they spend about 90 to 95% of their time. These are their hiding places. A cluttered space with lots of soft surfaces will provide more opportunities for bedbugs to hide when they are not feeding. Removing clutter, especially close to where humans are likely to be bitten—at home this would be near the bed, at the office, near a desk or a sofa in a lounge or lunch room—will make it more difficult for bedbugs to reach a host undetected.
  14. While we know bedbugs don’t carry diseases or pose a health risk, we do recognize the mental impact they have on employees. Do you have any advice to deal with this?
    Certain individuals will be physiologically hypersensitive to bedbug bites, and others may be hypersensitive to the anxiety and fear of being bitten by bedbugs, even if that fear appears irrational to most people. I think it is important to recognize the latter (anxiety/fear of bugs) and be especially patient with individuals who present this behavior. In such cases one option might be to relocate an employee to an area of the office where bedbugs have not been observed or detected, provided such a move does not interfere with the individual’s productivity. Overall I think educating employees can go a long way to diminishing their fears and apprehensions.

    Employees requiring assistance should talk to their manager or contact their department’s Employee Assistance Program.
  15. How do we alter the social stigma around bedbugs?
    We need to emphasize the point that bedbugs can appear anywhere—they are not simply associated with, or a consequence of poor hygiene. They occur in 5-star hotels, cruise ships and the newest, finest dormitories at our country’s top universities and private schools. They are no more associated with poor hygiene than are mosquitoes that will bite people dining al fresco at the finest restaurants! And unlike other indoor pests—read cockroaches—they do not feed on food or garbage or transmit diseases directly to people or through our food. Bedbugs have evolved to be very successful living in and around places where humans spend time. We may loathe them, but we have to be realistic about sharing our world with other organisms; there are way worse things out there that we simply can’t see. Education is the key to reducing the social stigma around bedbugs.
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