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Will Bedbugs Mean the End of Curb Scores?

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Thanks to bedbugs, scoring free furniture off Burlington greenbelts may never be the same.

The bloodsucking insects are apparently a growing problem in Burlington and elsewhere in Vermont, and city officials are fingering curbside junk as a potential culprit. Last year, Burlington documented one case of bedbugs. This year the number is already up to 13.

Code Enforcement Director Bill Ward worries that bedbugs are getting passed around on used mattresses, couches and other items picked up curbside. He's considering a public relations campaign to warn people about the risks of taking things off the curb, when they don't know the source.

With another move-in/move-out day fast approaching (September 1), Ward and his inspectors are readying for another bumper crop of curbside junk/treasure — and the potential transfer of bedbugs that could come with it.

This afternoon, Ward joined with members of the Vermont Department of Health and Vermont Apartment Owners Association for a "bedbug summit" at the Burlington public works building to plot a counterattack against the insects. He said junk piles are in the crosshairs.

"I want to put the hammer down on that," Ward said. "Tenants, landlords — get that stuff off the greenbelt."

Putting the hammer down isn't so easy, though, Ward admitted. He only has five inspectors to police the entire city and dealing with junk piles is only one of their duties. Slapping fines on property owners for not hauling away greenbelt junk can be complicated — mostly because fines can dragged out through appeals, he says.

One idea kicked around was encouraging tenants to paint or slash a big "X" onto mattresses and other items placed curbside that are, or may be, bedbug infested, so others know not to take them. But others pointed out that that could essentially black-list the house the items sit in front of, perhaps unfairly.

You can get a lot of stuff free off Burlington curbs. Loomis Street, in the Old North End, has even institutionalized it with the springtime furniture swap, timed with the college move-outs and aimed at keeping perfectly good stuff out of dumpsters.

City officials haven't conclusively linked a case of bedbugs to swapped furniture or clothes, but evidence suggests it could be happening. Code Enforcement Inspector Tim Ahonen said today that he once went to a house where one family was chucking bedbug-infested items in a dumpster and, almost immediately, another family was grabbing them out for themselves. Ahonen said he told the family the items had bedbugs, but they kept on taking them anyway.

"It's going to be a little tough," he said of the problem.

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