Bothersome bedbugs reach Yukon

Think the Yukon is safe from the scourge of bedbugs because of our cold climate? Think again. The bloodsuckers have tormented Sherrill Armstrong, a social housing tenant who lives on the second floor of 408 Alexander Street in Whitehorse, since July.

Think the Yukon is safe from the scourge of bedbugs because of our cold climate?

Think again.

The bloodsuckers have tormented Sherrill Armstrong, a social housing tenant who lives on the second floor of 408 Alexander Street in Whitehorse, since July.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Armstrong also had to worry about a threatening letter sent to her by the Yukon Housing Corporation, which owns the building. It warns her that she owes $711 for fumigation costs and the disposal of her bug-ridden bed.

That’s a lot of money for someone on a fixed income, such as Armstrong.

“Failure to make arrangements to pay this amount by January 18, 2011 may result in a termination of your tenancy,” warns the January 4 letter.

Armstrong never replied. “I’m not paying for something I can’t control,” she said.

Thankfully, the housing corporation has since stood down on its threat, following a phone call from the Yukon News.

The corporation typically charges tenants for the cost of damage to units, said housing corporation spokesperson Nathalie Ouellet.

But, given the “ambiguous” nature of a bedbug infestation, they’ve decided to suspend the fee until the corporation sorts out how to deal with bedbug problems, she said.

Blame is difficult to pin down with bedbugs.

Armstrong suspects the bugs crawled up from the unit directly below her, which, she claims, had a bedbug infestation earlier in the summer.

She also wonders whether recent renovations may have stirred up the bugs, when the building had its siding, carpets and linoleum replaced.

And Armstrong faults the housing corporation for taking too long to deal with the bedbug menace. “They prolonged it and it just got worst,” she said.

But Ouellet disputes all of this. To the corporation’s knowledge, only two social housing units have had recent bedbug infestations. The other is not in Armstrong’s building – it’s in a stand-alone house. “They’re not related,” said Ouellet.

And in both cases, the corporation quickly dispatched fumigators, said Ouellet.

She stressed that, to date, bedbugs are “not a big problem here.”

But the pests have crawled their way back into many North American cities over the past five years, so their arrival in Whitehorse shouldn’t be a surprise.

Nor would it be surprising if there were a wider bedbug problem that has so far gone unreported. Armstrong, for one, has heard they’re a problem at one low-budget hotel in Whitehorse.

Bedbugs don’t spread disease, so they aren’t considered a public health threat. But they’re horrid to live with – and remarkably hard to get rid of.

Armstrong started finding red blotches on her arms and legs, “like chickenpox,” in July. But she never witnessed the bugs bite her. Bedbugs prefer to strike in the deep of night.

When she saw a doctor about her problem, he told her she had a bedbug problem.

Armstrong washed all her clothes in hot water. She had her apartment steam-cleaned, vacuumed and fumigated twice. She had her baseboards caulked – the bugs often hide in tiny cracks in the wall during the day.

And Armstrong’s buggy bed was thrown out. She now sleeps on the sofa, which she steams twice a day.

Armstrong hopes the bugs are gone. But it doesn’t appear they are. She pulls up one pant leg to reveal a dime-sized red rash.

But she doesn’t want to throw out the sofa as well. “It’s a good couch,” she said. And then where would she sleep?

No point in buying a new bed, either. “Why bring in something new, when I’d just need to throw it out? I don’t think it’s safe.”

Armstrong is in her mid-50s. She’s not well. She’s suffered two strokes, and she’s socially isolated.

She hasn’t slept well in recent months, knowing that bugs may be gnawing at her through the night. She’s become a “nervous wreck,” she said.

Orkin PCO Services offers fumigation services in the Yukon. But its Kelowna-based branch manager, Rob Wiebe, was unable to say how many bedbug calls they’ve dealt with in Whitehorse lately: his Yukon fumigator recently departed.

However, Wiebe has observed a “steady increase” in the number of bedbug outbreaks across Western Canada over the past five years.

Growing international travel is partly to blame. Canadians travel to buggy parts of the world and bring the pests back with them.

Blame also the bedbug’s resilient genes, which have grown resistant to certain poisons.

Wiebe, for his part, also blames the banning of certain poisons. Apartments were once commonly nuked with organophosphates as a preventative strike against cockroaches and bedbugs. But these chemicals have been taken off market, for fear they may be poisoning people too.

“Bedbugs have always been around,” said Wiebe. “But now we have no effective chemicals to deal with them.”

People often feel ashamed because of bedbug infestations, but their presence is not an indication of hygiene. They’ve found their way into five-star hotels. Armstrong had never dealt with bedbugs until July.

Most people will never know they’ve been bitten by a bedbug, said Wiebe. Red welts are the result of an allergic reaction, he said.

The insects inject a numbing agent into your skin before they feast. “The only time you might notice is a tiny blood spot on your sheet.”

It takes a bedbug about 10 minutes to feed. During that time it can drink three times its own weight, growing red and fat.

They’re able to live up to a year before feeding again. But, if they can, bedbugs like to feed weekly.

Bedbugs are excellent hitchhikers, which is what allows them to spread so easily. Cold weather isn’t a deterrent – they can survive temperatures as cold as -35 Celsius.

If a bedbug stowaway has found its way into your coat, chances are it will hang on tight as you trundle through the cold—until you’ve reached your warm, soon-to-be-buggy home.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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