Chicago vs. Bed Bugs

Advocating policy to control the spread of bed bugs in the City of Chicago

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What 311 Has to Say About Bed Bugs

Posted by Jessica on December 26, 2008

Oh, the things some people will do to advocate a cause.

I, apparently, will spend a lot of time on the phone (and on hold, mind you) to find out what happens when a resident of the City of Chicago calls 311 to ask what to do if they live in an apartment that has bed bugs.

The City of Chicago Department of Public Health website doesn’t list a number for residents to call on its Bed Bugs: Frequently Asked Questions page, so I called the number most Chicagoans call for information– 311.  It seemed logical, especially when I read DPH’s Tips on Calling 311 page and saw this:

if you are unsure where to go for services and programs within the City of Chicago, or to which department you should direct your questions and/or concerns, 311 operators will be able to direct you to the appropriate parties.

Logical, yes?  Perhaps not.

In the end, though, it was time well spent, because it revealed a clear opportunity for our city to start to regulate the control of bed bug infestations.

Here’s the condensed version of what happened when I placed that call, minus the elevator music:

(Operator): City of Chicago, this is ______, may I help you?

(Me): Hi, I’m calling to find out what I should do if there are bed bugs in my apartment.

(Operator): BED BUGS?

(Me): Yes, bed bugs.


(Me): Hello?  Are you there?

(Operator): Did you say BED BUGS?

(Me): Yes, what should I do if my apartment has bed bugs and I think my building might have them, too?

(Operator): I’ve never heard of bed bugs before.  Hold please.


(Operator): Yeah, we don’t have anything about bed bugs, I don’t know what to tell you.

(Me): Oh.  You mean you don’t take reports of bed bug infestations there?

(Operator): I don’t have anything about bed bugs.

(Me): Oh.  Well, do you know who I should call, then, because I don’t know what to do.

(Operator): I guess you could call the health department.

(Me): Oh, okay.

(Operator): You have a good day now.

(Me): Wait, do you have their number?  The health department?

(Operator): Hold on.


(Operator): It’s _________.  You have a nice day now.


Interesting.  Okay, so residents should call the health department directly instead of calling 311.  I made note of this, and then I called.

(Operator): unintelligible

(Me): Hi, I’m calling because I need to know what to do if there are bed bugs in my apartment.

(Operator): Oh, you need to call 311 for that.

(Me): I just hung up with 311.  They said they’ve never heard of bed bugs.  They told me to call this number.

(Operator): That’s just someone being lazy.  That’s just someone not wanting to make a report.  You need to call 311 and tell them you want to make a report.

(Me): Oh.  Okay.  But they said they don’t have any information about bed bugs at all, and I need to know what I should do.  I need help.

(Operator): They told you to call this number?  This is the main switchboard.

(Me): Yes, this is the number 311 told me to call.

(Operator): And you’re calling about what?

(Me): Bed bugs.

(Operator): Bed bugs.  You know, do you clean a lot?  Because I keep my apartment clean and I don’t have any trouble with bugs at all.  Maybe you just need to wash your sheets more often, in really hot water.  I bet that would help.  You know what else I do?  I set off a bug bomb, you know, one of those roach bombs?  I set one of those off every month or so, to keep the roaches away.  It works.  Maybe you should try that, and wash your sheets in really hot water.


(Operator): Are you still there?

(Me): Um, yes, I’m still here.  See, bed bugs aren’t like roaches, and they’re really hard to get rid of, and I need some help.

(Operator): You need to call 311 then.

(Me): But they told me to call you.

(Operator): That’s just someone not wanting to do their job.  You call 311 and tell them you want to FILE A REPORT.  Say those exact words, and do not hang up until you get a report number.

(Me): Okay, thank you.

(Operator): And try one of those bug bombs.  Bye now.


Oh dear. At that point, I was in utter disbelief, and it’s not because I was getting passed back and forth between 311 and the health department.  I mean, that’s not good, but it’s not what was bothering me most. It wasn’t because no one seemed to know how to handle a call for help with a bed bug infestation, either, although I was certainly uncomfortable about that.  No, I was in utter disbelief because the advice given to me by the operator at the number I dialed was really, really bad. I mean, it was the kind of advice that, if followed, can make a bed bug infestation worse. Yes, it’s possible to make a bed bug infestation worse.  Keep reading.

From Best Management Practices for Controlling Bed Bugs, Cornell University, New York State Integrated Pest Management Program:
The use of “bug bombs” or total release foggers is not advised. These devices release insecticide in small droplets that land on exposed surfaces and do not penetrate the cracks and crevices where bed bugs hide. This results in increased pesticide exposure to the resident and poor control of these pests. This has been linked to pesticide resistance and suspected repellency to bed bugs, causing them to spread.

It’s true. A bug bomb, which tends to work well to control other insects, actually has the opposite effect on bed bugs.  It causes them to spread.

And as for the operator’s advice about cleaning, well, it wasn’t terrible, but cleaning a room that’s infested with bed bugs is complicated. In fact, there is an entire section dedicated to cleaning in Best Management Practices for Controlling Bed Bugs, with page-long subsections on topics like vacuuming.  Here’s an example:

Cleaning and organizing a room or home for bed bug management can be as burdensome as changing residences…  Cleaning should be carried out in a systematic way, beginning with removing items from the infested room or home.

Steps to follow include:

  • Scan the room for items on the floor. Make a plan for each item, and how it will be quarantined (closed into a plastic bag, for example), inspected, sanitized of bed bugs, and stored until further notice.
  • Place clothes, shoes, plush toys, pillows, and bedding into large clear plastic bags and seal them tightly to be laundered. Place the bags away from the infestation site.
  • Alternatively, plastic tote bins that have an airtight seal can be used for items that cannot be laundered, such as hard toys, electronics, books, breakable items, etc. Be prepared to store these items for a period of time until they can be thoroughly inspected or enough time has passed that bed bugs are dead – at least a year.

So you see, while the switchboard operator was on the right track, her well-intended advice about cleaning was inadequate, to say the least.  The bottom line is that what works for getting rid of almost every other pest generally does not work for getting rid of bed bugs.  Most people don’t know this, and everyone really should.

That’s why phase one of our mission here at Chicago vs. Bed Bugs is all about disseminating good information.  We know that lots of people don’t understand how difficult it is to get rid of bed bugs and how easy it is to spread them– throughout a home, throughout a building, throughout a neighborhood, throughout a city.  We also know that it’s possible to make sure everyone does understand these things.  It’s just going to take a little work.

And it’s going to take a little help from our city. A procedure for 311 operators to follow when taking calls about bed bug infestations would be a great start.  A 311-based reporting system for tracking and monitoring bed bug infestations in our city would be even better.  A city-mandated protocol, developed by pest management professionals and other experts, that’s easily accessible to everyone and conveyed by 311 operators would be fantastic.

None of these ideas, by the way, are original.  They’re already being implemented all over the place, even in Lexington, Kentucky.  Check out our Policy page and you’ll see what I mean.


6 Responses to “What 311 Has to Say About Bed Bugs”

  1. […] Read, and try not to weep. […]

  2. nobugs said

    This is ridiculous. Arrrrggghhhh!!!!

  3. nobugs said

    ps Do you have trackbacks enabled?

  4. Jessica said

    Hey Nobugs! Thanks for sharing my post with your readers. I think that sharing good information about bed bugs is really, really important, and I appreciate your efforts accomplish this task.

    I wrote this post in order to show just how easy it is to share BAD information about bed bugs. I do not believe that the switchboard operator at the health department conveyed any “official” advice about how to deal with a bed bug infestation. I do believe that I stumbled upon a well-meaning employee who had absolutely no idea what to do with me, but tried to help as best she could.

    People dealing with bed bug infestations encounter this type of situation all the time, unfortunately. And I think it’s such a shame that when they encounter people who do want to help, they’re likely to get information that just isn’t helpful at all.

    It comes down to educating the public. And educating the public comes down to ownership. Because while you, Nobugs, try your hardest to disseminate good information at, and Renee does at, and I do here at Chicago vs. Bed Bugs, and a handful of others do in various other outlets, we do not have the resources or the power or the influence to reach the millions of people out there who need access to good information about bed bugs.

    Our public agencies, however, do.

    It comes down to ownership. In Toronto, the public health department has taken ownership of acting to control the spread of bed bugs. And educating the public is a top priority. Did you know that the online version of the general bed bug fact sheet produced by Toronto Public Health is available in fourteen different languages? Talk about taking ownership for educating the general public! It’s nothing short of commendable.

    The scariest part of my experience with 311 and the operator at the health department here in Chicago (well, aside from the bug bomb advice, of course) is that it gave me the impression that no city department or public agency really wants to take ownership for addressing bed bug infestations in our city. I think that might explain why there is no phone number listed on the DPH Bed Bug FAQ page for residents to call for help. And I think it might explain these vague, this-is-your-problem-not-ours instructions for tenants on that page:

    What should tenants do?

    If you are a tenant, contact your property manager or landlord to discuss your respective obligations and come to an agreement on a plan to manage the infestation. If there is an infestation , landlords should contract with a licensed pest control operator to manage the problem

    Request a written integrated pest management (IPM) plan from the pest control operator. The plan will include the methods and insecticides to be used, and describe the efforts expected by the building manager as well as by the tenants.

    These instructions suggest, to me anyway, that the City of Chicago Department of Public Health takes no ownership for involving itself– or the City of Chicago in general– with the control of bed bug infestations. And that’s going to have to change, or else we’re going to be up to our ears in bed bugs in the Windy City before we know it.

    Someone’s got to take ownership for creating and enforcing policy to control the spread of bed bugs here. Once that happens, the chances for spreading good information to the general public– through 311 operators and switchboard operators and countless other channels– will increase exponentially.

    Kind of like bed bug infestations. They increase exponentially too, you know.


    Thanks again, Nobugs. I appreciate your support.

  5. November said

    pffttt…. This is why I moved out of Cook County. How ridiculous!

    So, if you were not you & really needed help & really didn’t know what to do, not only would you have gotten the run around, advice that will make you infestation worse, but also a pot-shot at your personal hygene.

    From $400.00/minute parking to the city “services” that aren’t servicable I could just scream. I hope your message works to get Chicagoans the help they deserve.

  6. Jessica said

    November, I’m so glad you commented. You’re right, if I wasn’t me and I really needed help and didn’t know what to do, this is exactly what I would have gotten from 311 and the health department. Can you imagine that? It’s really, really disturbing.

    I do think, though, that this experience is quite common in a lot of places, not just in Cook County. I wonder what you would encounter if you called your local department of health? I’d love it if you tried and then reported back to us. How’s that for a quick-and-easy way to contribute to a good cause? 🙂

    In any case, I’m happy to hear your thoughts, and I really appreciate your encouragement. I hope our message works to get Chicagoans the help they deserve, too.

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