Oregon Moves Closer to Bed-Bug Privacy Law

In a sign of just how serious the bed bug problem has become in some parts of the country, the legislature is close to making an unusual deal with the state's exterminators.
by | February 22, 2013

In a sign of just how serious the bed bug problem has become in some parts of the country, the Oregon legislature is close to making an unusual deal with the state's exterminators.

If they'll share their information on bed bug outbreaks, Oregon would agree to keep the identities of their customers private.

The unique arrangement is part of a bill that passed overwhelmingly in the state House earlier this month and is now awaiting action in the Senate.

Backers of the bill say that, as it stands, there's no reliable information on where bed bug outbreaks are happening, how pervasive they are, and how they're changing over time. While governments inspect buildings for compliance with things like fire code and building cost compliance, there isn't a regular protocol for bedbug inspection. That means for governments -- especially public health agencies -- to get a handle of infestation trends in the area, they must rely on private exterminators for information.

"There currently is no data," says state Rep. Bill Kennemer, a member of the House health care committee who carried the bill to the full House. "We couldn't make data-driven decisions about how bad the problem is or what strategically -- if anything -- need to be done."

Under the plan hammered out between the pest control industry, the state's restaurant and lodging association, and Multnomah County, the biggest county in Oregon, exterminators would turn over customer information to county public health agencies, so long as those agencies only publish information in aggregate form.

The legislation would carve out an exemption from public information laws for that data, ensuring that the public would be unable to identify particular locations that were treated for bedbugs, even once local governments get that data from pest control companies. The idea is the government would spare businesses from the stigma of having an infestation while still having access to reliable data.

Bed bugs are small insects that typically feed on people while they sleep. They don't spread disease, but their bites can be itchy and painful. Infestations can be difficult and expensive to treat, and almost always require the intervention of professional pest control experts.

The insects had become a rarity in the industrialized world by the second half of the 20th century, but since the late 1990s, they've been making a comeback, baffling scientists along the way. Communities across the country -- particularly urban areas -- have struggled with how to address the proliferation of the creatures.

Meanwhile, Oregon's not alone: the apparent increase in bedbugs is causing many state and local governments to consider legislation addressing the spread of the insects.

Earlier this month, the New Hampshire state House passed a bill clarifying the responsibilities of landlords and tenants when rental housing gets an infestation. The New York Assembly is considering a bill that would require hotels to notify employees of bed bugs infestations and train them on how to eradicate the pests. Meanwhile, the New York Senate is considering a bill that would establish tax credits for personal property that has to be replaced as a result of bed bug infestations.

Local governments from Cleveland to New York City have established task forces in recent years to find solutions to the bed bug problem.

In Oregon, lawmakers hope that the solution to tackling the problem is through better data, which they can only get from exterminators. But the stigma against bedbugs is so severe that businesses fear that they could take a financial hit if the data reveals their identities.

Supporters of the plan argue that if the information isn't made confidential, some businesses may be reluctant to seek treatment, and exterminators might simply report bedbug infestations as something else -- say, ant infestations -- in order to protect their clients.

But the legislation has set off a debate between those who feel the arrangement amounts to state-sponsored protection of infested businesses. The Oregonian, the state's largest newspaper, wrote an editorial criticizing the bill, saying it's well-meaning but sets a precedent that the government can shield potentially inconvenient information from the public.

Lila Wickham, director of environmental health at the Multnomah County Health Department, told the legislature earlier this month that the government can't properly address bed bugs without knowing how pervasive they are. "We know this will make a difference," Wickham testified.

Meanwhile, Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, who helped convene the group that developed the plan, testified that the government has stepped up its public education about bed bugs, but "what we don't have, and what is missing, is the ability to track trends in infestations."

By letting pest control companies voluntarily tell public health officials where they're treating for bed bugs -- without fear of harming customers' reputations -- the county would better be served to tackle the problem, she argued. 

Backers of the bill have repeatedly said any information that's public today will still be public after the bill passes -- for example, housing inspectors that encountered a bed bug infestation in the course of their own work independent from exterminators.But information that's currently in the hands of private exterminators would remain private, even when it's transferred to the government.

That's not altogether unprecedented. The Centers for Disease Control, for example, relies on data reported by medical professionals to track the the spread of the flu, but individual patients aren't identified by name.

In November, San Francisco lawmakers took a different approach to the problem, mandating that exterminators report information on the number of units sprayed for bed bugs each month, the Bay Citizen reports.

But San Francisco exterminators won't be required to turn over individual customer information. They'll just identify each unit's Census track, which would ostensibly make the debate over public information moot, since customer information would never be in the government's hands.

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