Are Bedbugs Biting Big Apple Commuters?

The New York City Transit Authority is defending itself against a report that its subways may be whisking a host of unwanted travelers -- the nonpaying, six-legged, blood-sucking variety -- throughout the city.

Edward Brownbear, lead education instructor for the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, told an audience at a seminar Tuesday night that the city's trains and stations may be infested with bedbugs, according to media and online reports.

The top bedbug authority reportedly said he had seen the bugs on the wooden benches of Manhattan's Union Square station and The Bronx's Fordham Road station -- as well as on the clothing of a passenger on a train.

Brownbear has since refused to offer further comment to the media. Meanwhile, the department has issued a statement distancing itself from the comments.

"The HPD [Department of Housing, Preservation and Development] employee who spoke of bedbugs in subway stations at a recent HPD seminar was reflecting on his own personal experience, not his work at the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development," the statement read. "HPD is responsible for enforcing the housing maintenance code and our inspectors only issue violations for bedbugs found in residences. The agency does not regulate subway stations."

New York City Transit spokesman Charles Seaton said the authority was unaware of Brownbear's suggestion that the subway system was infested with bedbugs "until we read a blog [Thursday] morning."

He said that while no such infestation has yet been confirmed, "we will send people to check to see whether there is this problem."

But though Seaton added that there have been no similar complaints from subway customers in the past, at least one Manhattan pest control professional said bedbug infestation has been a growing problem on the city's subway system.

"I've been talking about it for five years," said Jeffrey Eisenberg, president of Pest Away Exterminating.

Eisenberg said he personally reported bedbug sightings to subway administrators as long as seven to eight years ago.

"I have seen bedbugs firsthand on the subway," he said. "I called the [Metropolitan Transit Authority], and they said they were looking into it. … They didn't do anything about it."

An Uncommon Infestation?

Eisenberg said that considering the rise in reports of bedbugs in New York City in recent years, it should come as little surprise if the bugs have been found on the subway system as well.

"It's an epidemic in the city, and it's certainly growing," he said. "It just goes to show that this is not some unusual circumstance and it's not going to go away anytime soon."

Still, reports of such infestations have been uncommon so far. Sylvana Hoyos, a spokesperson for Philadelphia's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, said that there have been no such instances of similar problems there.

Cindy Mannes, spokeswoman for the National Pest Management Association, said her organization has not received any such reports.

"I have not heard of anything relating to bedbugs in the subways of New York City or anywhere else," Mannes said.

She added that such infestations could be possible, especially considering the steady human traffic in such facilities.

"If you think about large groups of people, in many cases this is how bedbugs are transported," she said. "I know they've been found in movie theaters and other strange places. I know of nothing specific to any subway station, but if there's upholstery anywhere, they can live in it."

Despite a shortage of upholstered surfaces in most subway trains, Eisenberg said bedbugs, much like humans, can use trains to move from place to place.

"Subways don't have a lot of [upholstery], which I think is their saving grace," he said. "But buses do have upholstery, so that is a problem."

Getting the Bugs Out

If the New York City subway is infested with bedbugs, it will be a problem that will warrant quick action. After a long-term decline, bedbugs have rebounded in the United States in recent years partly because of increased international travel.

The insects, which can be elusive due to their small size and nocturnal nature, are known to be able to live in both fibers and wood. They are also known for their bites, which lead to itchy bumps on the skin.

But the bite can lead to more than an itch. According to reports from the U.S. Public Health Service, bedbugs are known to carry dozens of infectious diseases, from smallpox to the flu.

The good news, Eisenberg said, is that exterminators could likely rid a subway system of an infestation without disrupting its service.

"These things can be done at nighttime," Eisenberg said. "Most trains are taken offline at some point for cleaning anyway."

"It shouldn't be a big deal, except God knows how many thousand subway cars there are in New York City."

As for NYC Transit, it said that in the event a bedbug infestation is confirmed on the subway system, the next step is clear.

"Getting rid of them," Seaton said.