They relied on residential code inspection data from Chicago, where bed bug numbers began to rise in the early 2000s. The Chicago Department of Buildings conducts annual inspections of apartment buildings four stories or more, and inspectors are required to report pests like the brown insects. The insects feed on human blood. They cause skin rashes and have been linked to psychological effects such as anxiety, insomnia, and depression.
The researchers examined data from over 56,000 inspections that took place between 2006 and 2018 and uncovered 491 bed bug infestations. They found that a low neighborhood median household income, high eviction rate, and high overcrowding were all predicted bed bug infestations. All other things being equal, the chances of getting bed bug infestation in a low-income household were 8 to 12 times higher than in a high-income household.
The neighborhoods in question are also more likely to face other public health challenges – water pollution, high prevalence of asthma and other chronic diseases. And the researchers find that tenants are often blamed for the infestation and driven away if they cannot eradicate it. However, poverty means less money spent on pest control, which creates a cycle of drawbacks and persistent bed bug infestation.
The results “provide empirical support for the argument that the current bed bug crisis is a social justice issue,” they conclude. Rather than infecting low-income people with infestations, the study reveals how social inequalities fuel them – and suggests reforms that could tackle poverty, displacement and overcrowding, and also alleviate bed bug outbreaks.