Bedbugged! is a monthly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
A few weeks ago I noticed mattresses leaning outside some of the brownstones on my block. Luckily they were heading away from my building, not toward it.
Taken alone, a random discarded mattress is no more an indication of infestation than bites are. Nevertheless it got me thinking--and itching. Could bed bugs traverse the solid walls between row houses? Brownstone Brooklyn, not to mention the Upper West and East Sides, Chelsea and the West Village surely would want to know.
On one hand it would seem that since bed bugs are willing to travel for food--they’ll crawl many yards for a meal--and can squeeze themselves thinner than a metrocard, that they would be unlikely to have much trouble creeping next door.
On the other hand, if there was enough food in one house, and easier transit vertically between floors, why struggle through a thick wall on a quest for food that isn’t guaranteed?
Last year when apartment hunting I came across a horrid tale of two places next to each other that seemed to have exchanged bugs because of one person’s refusal to deal with them.
Granted, there was no telling how the bugs had been transferred--perhaps someone living in one had visited next door, rather than the bugs moving through the walls--but I would think that, no matter how solid the wall between each town house, bedbugs would find a way to get through.
Stumped and with a bit of consternation, I asked two of my trusted experts, Gil Bloom of Standard Pest Control (and winner of this year’s Best Bed Bug Guy of 2012 from New York Magazine), and Timothy Wong, director of M&M Environmental.
Both said that though it is extremely rare, such transmission can occur between laterally linked abodes.
“There should be firewalls between townhouses, and the bed bug migration should be minimal in theory,” Bloom said over e-mail. “But I have heard cases of mice coming through and one case of bed bugs.”
However, he assured me, that didn’t meant they went through the walls.
“It could be social or some other commonality," he says.
Wong too said bed bugs were unlikely to move sideways in this fashion.
“It's very difficult for bedbugs to travel across the walls of townhouses, because they are separated by thick, independent walls,” he said by e-mail.
In his experience, says Wong, transmission seems to occur mainly "when these structures share basements," nothing that "some townhouses used to be owned by the same owner and they have shared basements, so the mechanical components can be shared such as water, sewer, boiler, electrical, etc. In these cases, bed bugs travel to the other building very easily.”
So far there are no bed bugs in my building. My preliminary questions to the woman in the house next door, which had not discarded a mattress, drew a quizzical look. Note to self: Asking someone whether their building has a bed bug problem is not the best ice-breaker in a new neighborhood.
Even if the discarded mattresses were casualties of bed bugs (I looked but never saw any), it would not mean the bugs had traveled through the walls. It’s a tight-knit block, and bugs could easily hitchhike between houses on people and their possessions.
All that said, it is not impossible, entomologist Jeffrey White of Cooper Pest Solutions and BedBug Central said.
“I absolutely think that it can happen,” said White.
“Firewalls and the particular firewall construction dictate the likelihood of bugs moving from one unit to the other,” he said, adding that he had seen a much smaller rate of transfer between firewalls than between apartments within a building.
In addition, he mentioned, older buildings tend to be more porous and cracked, giving bugs more options. Even the best buildings have an occasional crack, White pointed out.
There, he had a point. My row house is about 100 years old. I still suspect that such transmission is not as common as it is between apartments within a building, as Wong and Bloom said.
Thus, no matter how thick and impervious-seeming the firewall is, it never hurts to inspect surrounding units around an infested space, he said.
But since there are no guarantees in life, it can’t hurt to take precautions, as Bloom noted in saying, “Either way, putting DE or Cimexa in the adjoining wall voids would be a good move.”
Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact.