After several quiet years, bedbugs returned with a vengeance to NYC this summer to terrorize New Yorkers in a place even more vulnerable than their apartments: the mass transit subway system. There were bedbug sightings on several N trains, Q trains, and more. Altogether, there were reportedly 21 sightings of bedbugs on or around the subway in August, which certainly sounds like a big number. So is there something to all this subway scaremongering, or is the media (not us, of course) just blowing things out of proportion?
According to the News' sources, there were nine sightings on N trains, three on Q trains and two on 6 trains; they were spotted once each on 3, 4, 5 and L trains, and bedbugs were also found in transit worker crew rooms and offices in Astoria, Coney Island (N and Q lines), and East New York (A line).
"We’ve never had sightings to this magnitude,” Joe Costales, a chairman with TWU 100, told them. "We’ve had isolated incidents in crew quarters, but it’s no longer an isolated scenario. It’s throughout the system." It certainly panicked politicians enough to propose legislation requiring the MTA to inform the public within 24 hours of any cases of bedbugs on city buses or subway trains.
But while MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg acknowledged that the MTA is planning to hire an expert to review their anti-bedbug measures, he took umbrage with the characterization of the latest outbreak as extreme:
When I last checked Friday, we had found evidence of bedbugs on a grand total of 16 subway cars spread over eight separate trains since the beginning of the year, despite carrying 5.8 million people on 8,000 trains per day. So this is a great story for a newspaper looking for a scary headline, but on the scale of things to worry about, it falls somewhere between getting struck by lightning and winning the lottery.
Note that the number of alleged sightings increased only after the Daily News began spotlighting each alleged sighting, and after they devoted another scary headline to it today, I'm sure we'll get reports of more alleged sightings today ... even though our pest control contractors are often unable to find any trace of bedbugs on a train even after a report of an alleged sighting.
There's a lot of room for arguing about the pervasiveness of media fearmongering, and to what degree it impacts how people perceive their environment. There have been some fascinating articles about how the media has influenced people's opinions on their own health, as you can see in this 2013 article about wind farming. Or you can look at a study last year in The American Journal Of Psychiatry which looked at the effects of news stories about mass shootings on public attitudes. (Their conclusion: it's been used to garner support for gun control policies...but also exacerbates negative attitudes toward the mentally ill. It's safe to say the media only set out to produce one of those effects.) But it still isn't so clear cut: an even more recent study found that media scaremongering was having less and less of an effect on people. If The Daily News told you to jump off a bridge, would you? If the bridge was covered in bedbugs, would you?
By putting every bedbug sighting on their front page, regardless of whether it was confirmed, the News has contributed to a panicked atmosphere—at least one 7 train which was taken out of service after a bedbug sighting turned out to be absolutely nothing. The straphanger who claims he saw bedbugs "coming out from under the seat to feed on people's legs" sounds more like a dude who fell asleep while watching Arachnophobia.
However, those first bedbugs were confirmed on the N train, and at various employee lockers—one even went home with an N train cleaner. It was and remains a legitimate news story, albeit a skin-crawling one, despite the MTA's downplaying; anything that causes full trains to be taken out of service and inspected/fumigated is serious business.
And the MTA certainly hasn't helped by keeping people guessing about what's going on: "Because there's a lack of information there will be increased hysteria, because people right now are in the dark," said City Councilman Mark Treyger, one of the pols who proposed the MTA legislation. "There was a train conductor on the N line that was bit numerous times and the MTA did not notify the public about that. It came out through the workers and the people on that train."
Scary headlines aside, one other thing is for sure: this is the most attention given to subway bedbugs in over a decade. Previously, there were subway bedbug scares in 2008, 2010 and 2011, but none of those stories lasted past a few days in the news cycle—these blips were all centered on one incident/sighting, not 21 over the course of a month.
Since things got really bad during the Great Bedbug Wars of 2009-2010, when any hotel, movie theater and building lobby could potentially have been housing an army of bloodsuckers, bedbug sightings have been on a dramatic decline. So it seems completely justifiable for people to be very nervous about renewed bedbug sightings on the subway—we're all getting too old for this shit—but as Lisberg put it, there's no need for actual panic.
But the fear around the latest infestation has already started spreading: a bus on the B44 line, which runs from Sheepshead Bay to Williamsburg, was removed from service quietly earlier this week after a passenger said they saw a bedbug on someone else. No bedbugs were found, of course, but bedbug paranoia is leading to a lot of finger pointing.
Either way, you're almost certainly not getting bedbugs by sitting on the G train. Of course, you may not want to sit on the G train, but that's a whole other story.