Los Angeles

LA's Bedbug Cover-Up

An NBC4 I-Team investigation found the city keeps library outbreaks a secret

The Los Angeles Public Library system is battling an ongoing bedbug problem, but the NBC4 I-Team has learned that library officials have taken steps to keep you from finding out about it.

While investigating criminal and lewd activity at L.A.'s 72 branches and the downtown Central Library, the I-Team obtained documents that reveal bedbugs have been found at city libraries 84 different times since 2014. Some patrons have discovered the bugs hiding in books they brought home from libraries.
Nicole Gustas had the misfortune of checking out a copy of the vampire mystery "Dead Reckoning" at Central Library in Downtown L.A., taking it home, and found a bedbug inside the pages soon after she settled down to read.  
"My reaction was terror," Gustas told the I-Team. "The first thing I thought was, 'wow, that's ironic! There's a blood sucking bug in my book about blood suckers.'"    
Books are attractive to bedbugs, because the insects like tight spaces; they'll hide and lay eggs in the spines and pages of the hardcover or paperback on your bedside table, then crawl out at night in search of human or animal blood.
While they're not believed to carry disease, their bites can cause painful welts or itchy rashes. They can also multiply quickly, so bringing just one bug home can lead to a major infestation. According to information on the American Library Association's website, just one mated, female bedbug could produce more than 120,000 offspring in a six-month period. Eliminating a major bedbug infestation from a building can take months, and cost thousands of dollars.  
The day after discovering she'd brought a bedbug home, Gustas hired an exterminator, and took the bedbug back to the library to complain.
"The woman at the checkout didn't seem terribly interested," Gustas recalled. "She reported [it] to a manager, and that was it," said Gustas. "I never heard anything else."
In fact, most patrons never hear anything about bedbugs at libraries, because the city doesn't want them to know about it, according to a librarian who spoke to the I-Team. One longtime librarian, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of career repercussions, says, "We are not (allowed) to tell the public that bedbugs have been found. They don't want the bad P.R."
When librarians find a bedbug or bedbugs, they contact administrators to arrange fumigation, and close the area where it was discovered (or, in some cases, they close the entire library). Librarians are instructed not to tell patrons the real reason for the closure; instead, signs are posted that say "closed for maintenance" or "closed due to emergency facility repairs."
Asked by the I-Team why the public isn't informed about bedbugs, City Librarian John Szabo said "we deal with it, and we deal with it immediately. We don't think it's ... an issue to broadcast."
"They absolutely should be open about it," countered entomologist and Long Beach City College instructor Sylvia Kenmuir.  "[If you pick up a bedbug at a library] it doesn't take very long for an infestation to happen [at your home]. You have a right to know that there's a possibility."
Kenmuir says bedbugs are a problem at libraries nationwide, partly because homeless patrons often bring them in on suitcases, bags and blankets. But unlike the L.A. City Library, some systems are transparent about the problem. The Burbank Library puts information about infestations on its website, while libraries in Wichita, Kansas and on Long Island, New York regularly bring in specially trained dogs during library hours to sniff the bugs out of their hiding places.
Asked if he'd want to know if he'd spent a day inside a library that had bedbugs, City Librarian John Szabo said "Well, sure."  He did not say whether the L.A. Library will consider altering its policy to inform patrons in the future.
More bedbug facts:

  • They can be hard to spot — they usually resemble small apple seeds
  • They're most comfortable in fabric and small crevices, so they love mattresses and furniture (as well as books)
  • A bedbug bite is painless; it's the possible allergic reaction that causes a painful, itchy rash
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