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Bedbugs: not dead yet

Bedbug infestations are on the rise in Chicago—and the number of complaints barely scratches the surface



Taina Rodriguez was at the dog beach with her husband and two mini schnauzers one afternoon last June when she got a disturbing phone call from her neighbor. There's been an explosion in your apartment, the neighbor said. You should hurry home.

As Rodriguez and her husband, Hernan Velarde, both 31, made their way back to their Albany Park two-flat, other neighbors and her landlord were calling too. By the time they got there, the fire had been put out and their street and two others were blocked off by fire trucks and police. The landlord asked her not to talk to the officers, saying he'd handle everything, Rodriguez says. She didn't argue: "I was in a complete state of shock."

The cause of the fire, according to Rodriguez: bedbugs.

Taina Rodriguez and Hernan Velarde were lucky to be at the beach with their dogs when their apartment caught on fire, which Rodriguez believes was caused by her landlord’s attempt to eradicate bedbugs. - JIM NEWBERRY
  • Jim Newberry
  • Taina Rodriguez and Hernan Velarde were lucky to be at the beach with their dogs when their apartment caught on fire, which Rodriguez believes was caused by her landlord’s attempt to eradicate bedbugs.

In late April, Rodriguez had started waking up with itchy welts on the right side of her body. After identifying bedbugs as the cause, she called a pest control company out to her place for a quote. They told her it would cost around $1,200 and they'd need permission from her landlord, Greg Puchalski, to do the treatment. But Rodriguez claims that Puchalski refused—even though she said she'd pay for it. "He goes, 'No, Taina, I fix it, I fix it,'" she says. "'I'll do it my way.'" (Puchalski denies that the conversation took place.)

Puchalski's fix, according to Rodriguez, was to gas the place. "He came in and put propane tanks in our apartment," she says. "He thought he could heat up the apartment and the bedbugs would die. One of his brothers, who was also co-owner of our apartment building, had seen a segment about bedbugs on TV."

Rodriguez says Puchalski had been using propane tanks in her bedroom to treat the bedbugs for a couple months—often when she and her husband were home—before the explosion occurred. The day of the fire, she and Velarde had been out of the house in the morning; when they stopped at home to pick up the dogs and take them to the beach, she noticed that their bedroom door was closed. Neighbors saw the explosion in their bedroom, and one claims to have seen Puchalski go in after the fire to remove the tank, according to Rodriguez.

Puchalski says he never used propane tanks in the apartment. When I called he told me that his brother Jack was Rodriguez's landlord and I should talk to him, but eventually admitted that he was usually the one Rodriguez would call when she was having problems with her apartment. (Jack Puchalski never returned my calls.) Greg at first avoided my questions, but finally said that Rodriguez "probably" had called him about a bedbug problem, and "probably I sprayed." He was adamant that he had never put propane tanks in the apartment, though, and said that the fire was caused not by an explosion but by an electrical problem.

What little was left of Rodriquez's bathroom. - HERNAN VELARDE
  • Hernan Velarde
  • What little was left of Rodriquez's bathroom.

Rodriguez argues that their bathroom fixtures—sink, toilet, bathtub—ended up on the second floor of her building as a result of the explosion. She doesn't think that would happen from an electrical fire.

Greg Puchalski's insurance company is currently investigating the case, but Rodriguez says it's complicated by the fact that many of the neighbors who saw what happened live in buildings owned by the Puchalskis. "The community where I lived, it's all undocumented folks. They don't want to talk because they don't want to get in trouble," she says. "My brother-in-law doesn't even want to talk because he feels that he will lose his apartment." (Rodriguez is a U.S. citizen; her husband is not.)

Rodriguez says the fire destroyed 95 percent of their possessions, including her wheelchair and medications (she and her husband are both disabled: she has Marfan syndrome; he suffered a work-related injury that left his lower back fused). The Red Cross helped them replace their medications, and they were able to stay with Velarde's brother, who lived across the street, while they looked for a new place. Rodriguez went back to work after taking a couple days off—she's a constituent advocate for Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky—and Velarde went back to repairing home appliances (he's self-employed). They found another place to live and moved in. Looking back on the incident, Rodriguez says: "Let me put it to you this way: [the bedbugs] all burned."

Bedbugs have been feeding on humans since we first lived in caves, and humans have been going to extremes to get rid of them for just about as long. In 1777 The Compleat Vermin-Killer advised people to fill cracks in the bed with gunpowder and light it on fire; another remedy, recommended by Good Housekeeping in 1889, was composed of a mix of alcohol, turpentine, and highly toxic mercury chloride. Fumigation was also popular, first with brimstone (sulfur) and then in the 1900s with the toxic gas hydrogen cyanide.

It's easy to see why bedbugs can inspire such extreme reactions: the apple-seed-sized bloodsuckers feed on humans at night, usually leaving red, itchy welts behind (about a third of the population has no reaction to bedbug bites). They reproduce quickly, like to hide in small crevices, and can live up to a year between feedings, which makes them very difficult to eradicate. They also travel well: the bugs can crawl through cracks in the walls to an adjacent unit in an apartment building, stow away on used bedding or clothing, or climb onto a bag or coat set down in an infested area.

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