Turtle Bay

Infestation is spreading at the United Nations. Will biting sanctions or containment help?

There is a new addition to the United Nations family: the dreaded bed bugs that have infested New York City have spread to the U.N.’s landmark headquarters building. Over the weekend, a team of trained hounds sniffed out a group of the pests — known properly as Cimex Lectularius — that had slipped past security ...

There is a new addition to the United Nations family: the dreaded bed bugs that have infested New York City have spread to the U.N.’s landmark headquarters building.

Over the weekend, a team of trained hounds sniffed out a group of the pests — known properly as Cimex Lectularius — that had slipped past security at the U.N. and embedded themselves in a set of vintage mid-century wood and naugahyde conference room chairs beneath the U.N. library.

U.N. officials announced the operation late Tuesday to reporters at the U.N. press section, which is located two floors above the scene of the insect discovery. They assured staff and reporters that the bug invasion had been repelled and that no one had suffered a rash, bite, or any other indignity.

“There were bed bugs, but they didn’t bite us,” Werner Schmidt, the spokesman for Capital Master Plan, which is overseeing the $1.9 billion renovation of the U.N. headquarters complex, told Turtle Bay. “The chairs are gone and now the bed bugs are gone. I can assure you that nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has ever complained about getting bitten on those chairs.”

The bed bug troubles come as the city is battling the worst infestation of the blood-sucking parasite in decades. The pests are showing up at restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, and schools. In comparison, the U.N. infestation has been a relatively modest one, but it has stirred anxiety among members of the U.N. diplomatic community.

The Waldorf Astoria hotel — the official residence of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice and the nerve center of U.S. diplomatic activities during the annual U.N. General Assembly — was sued by a Florida woman who claimed her daughter was bitten by bed bugs at the hotel. The Waldorf Astoria claims it conducted an examination of the room and found no evidence of bed bugs. A spokesman for Rice, Mark Kornblau, said that no bed bugs have been found in the ambassador’s penthouse residence. “So far we’re in the clear in terms of the ambassador’s residence, but if the critters keep surfacing in U.N. buildings, we may have to consider some biting sanctions,” Kornblau told Turtle Bay.

The U.S. State Department, which organized scores of meetings between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and foreign dignitaries, also assured Turtle Bay that there were no diplomatic incidents involving the pests. “We wrestled with a number of intractable problems in New York this year, from Middle East peace, Afghanistan and Sudan to climate change, cook-stoves and food insecurity,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. “Fortunately, we did not have to add beg bugs to the list. We were alert for deep undercover agents, but did not discover any that I’m aware of.”

For years, the U.N. headquarters has struggled to contain the building’s mouse population. The small rodents could be seen scurrying across the building’s storied corridors, depositing droppings on office desks or poking their noses out from behind the plants in the U.N. cafeteria. But the bed bugs have turned up as hundreds of constructions workers moved into the building and thousands of U.N. workers moved off campus to neighborhood buildings.

“Bed bug infestations have been found in many public and commercial buildings throughout New York City, indicating a worsening problem,” said Andrew Nye, the chief of the U.N.’s Facilities Management Service, which is responsible for combating the pests. “On Oct. 15, 2010, bed bugs have also been found in furniture which came from the 19th and 20th floors of the Secretariat building and on Oct. 22, 2010, in furniture in the 1B area of the Library building. This furniture has been moved to a part of the building not occupied by staff to facilitate fumigation.

The bed bug troubles were first reported last year by Matthew R. Lee, a U.N. blogger with Inner City Press. Lee says that the initial response from top U.N. brass was one of denial and dismissal. “I think we need intervention by public health officials who care less about spin and more about containment,” he told Turtle Bay. “Rather than trying to make full disclosure and address the problem they have been trying to deny it and minimize it and it’s not surprising that it has reappeared. Sadly, this story has legs.”

U.N. officials maintain that they have been open with staff about the problem, and that they have sought to aggressively eradicate it. Nye confirmed that bed bugs were found last September at the Albano building, which houses employees from the department that organizes U.N. conferences and General Assembly activities, and that they were fumigated twice in 2009, in September and early November, and a third time in May.

But the U.N.’s management of the problem has infuriated some officials.  Shaaban M. Shaaban, undersecretary for General Assembly and Conference Management, complained in a May 2010, memo — published by Lee — that his staff’s quarters at the Albano continued to be plagued by faulty elevators, a temperamental air-conditioning system, rodents and various species of insects, including bedbugs.

“I regret to inform you that none of these issues have has been resolved to date, and that the building had an emergency fumigation over this past weekend as bedbugs were identified again, this time in over 90 percent of the floors in the building,” Shaaban wrote in a memo to Angela Kane, the U.N. undersecretary for Management and Administration. “Each one of these issues represents a serious lapse on the part of the organization’s responsibility to provide a safe and comfortable working environment. But all these together border on a situation making the building potentially uninhabitable.”

Nye acknowledged that an inspection of the building last May turned up evidence of bed bugs. “As a precautionary measure the whole building was fumigated the weekend of 8, 9 May 2010,” Nye wrote. “On May 2010 a staff member reported the presence of a bed bug in the office. The contractors identified it to be a ‘clover mite’, which is not harmful to building, furniture or humans. Since the fumigation in September and October last year, one staff member advised of a suspected bed bug bite, but the expert advised this was from some other insect. In conclusion there has been no confirmed bed bug activity in the Albano building since the fumigations last year.”

Werner Schmidt said that the U.N. has replaced its infested chairs with a set of bug-proof modern plastic and steel chairs. But he said it was still unclear how the bugs initially got there, and how the U.N. could be assured they won’t return. “We are just the victims here,” he said.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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