Bedbug problems have been causing more of a stir than usual lately, especially for landlords. It's at least been reassuring until now to think that, unlike lead-based paint, asbestos, and some molds, bedbugs do not seriously harm your health. For sure, their bites are maddening and unsightly, and dealing with them will disrupt your life (or your landlord business) in a major way. And the psychological effects of living with bedbugs can be difficult. But no one thought bedbugs were likely to get tenants seriously sick. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is still telling us, "Bed bugs, a problem worldwide, are resurging, causing property loss, expense, and inconvenience. The good news is that bed bugs do not transmit disease (emphasis added)." But is that still true?
May 2011 brought a different point of view. Researchers in Vancouver reported the discovery of particularly nasty bacteria on bedbugs taken from patients who were admitted to an inner-city hospital (they reported their findings in an advance electronic publication of an article slated to be published in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases). The bugs were carrying methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium (VRE). These bacteria cause serious staph infections that are very resistant to antibiotics. (You can read a PDF version of the bedbug article on the CDC website.)
The study's authors concluded that they may have discovered a new pathway, or vector, for the transmission of these bacteria. Much like the mosquito carries malaria, perhaps the bedbug carries the bacteria, dropping it off as it bites its human host. However, further study is needed to determine whether the bugs are simple transmitters, have the staph infection themselves, or even whether the bugs infected the humans or the other way around. The researchers also noted that their findings occurred in an area of dense, poor housing, where residents already had a high incidence of MRSA infections.
The implications of this study for landlords and tenants are significant. A widespread bedbug infestation has always qualified as a habitability problem, which, if not addressed, enables tenants in all states except for Arkansas to break their leases and leave, without liability for future rent. Tenants in some states can withhold rent until the habitability problem is fixed or can take steps to deal with the problem themselves and deduct costs from the rent. Typically, however, landlords have a reasonable time to fix a habitability problem before tenants can utilize their remedies.
But, if bedbugs are proven to be vectors for staph infections on the order of MRSA, the stakes have been raised dramatically. A "reasonable time" may be much faster than previously thought. And if tenants contract an MRSA infection as the result of the landlords' inattention to the problem, the tenant's measure of damages goes way beyond what it would be if the bedbugs' bites were merely annoying.
Looking for more in-depth information on landlord liability? Landlords can get a step-by-step handbook for leasing out rental property with Every Landlord's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman, Marcia Stewart, and Ralph Warner (Nolo). And renters can turn to Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Marcia Stewart and Janet Portman (Nolo), for a comprehensive guide to tenants' legal rights and responsibilities.