Ick factor: Far from the biggest problem with cockroaches

July 31, 2012, 3:56 p.m.

Cockroaches can cause a slew of health problems, and have been known to burrow into children's ears at night, causing severe infections in the process. (Stefan Ray/Flickr Creative Commons)

Jim Mangia, the president and CEO of St. John's Well Child and Family Center, says his clinics pull cockroaches out of about a dozen kids' ears every week.

That's because cockroaches can't move backwards – they can only move forward, he explained. So when they crawl into a child's ear at night, they get lodged in there, causing severe infections before they get removed.

Cockroaches are a major problem in a lot of housing across Los Angeles, particularly in South L.A. Mangia lists off some reasons why they're an issue:

"They carry disease," he said. "They can cause severe skin infections, ear infections, staph infections, yeast infections."

Roaches are also a trigger for asthma – when they die, roaches' exoskeletons turn into a fine dust that causes problems in people's lungs, kids' in particular. And then there are what Mangia refers to as "ancillary issues."

"You have the mental health conditions that are caused by children not wanting to eat because there are cockroaches running across the table, cockroaches in the food," he said.

Such are the living standards for many folks in South L.A. – conditions which Favian Gonzalez, an organizing coordinator for Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), calls "deplorable."

"One of the factors is there's not enough housing for the amount of people that live in South L.A.," he said. "And what happens is you start seeing single-family homes being cut into two or three different properties, especially close to USC."

That inconvenience can be thrust upon families who have been living in homes for 10 years, where their property is suddenly reduced in size and more tenants move in. Gonzalez says they won't move because they can't afford rents in the surrounding southside areas, let alone the more affluent communities to the north or the west.

"They're willing to take it because there's simply not enough housing out in the neighborhoods," he explained. Either that, or families leave Los Angeles for neighboring counties.

And that's not all they're willing to take: Housing conditions in South L.A. often include mold, rats and roaches. The latter, says Gonzalez, isn't out of the ordinary to a lot of residents.

"Families say, 'Oh it's normal that they come out in the summer, and they only come out at night'," he said. "They spray them down and throw a bomb at them and then they go away temporarily."

While those families are right about roaches being especially prevalent during the summer, said Gonzalez, "they don't understand that some of those chemicals [they're using to fight the roaches] are airborne and affects their immune systems and health."

Poor maintenance on the part of a landlord is almost always the culprit. A plumbing problem, for example, might lead to a pool of water forming, which in turn attracts roaches. Landlords who don't want to shell out the money to fix plumbing problems, said Gonzalez, are contributing to a roach infestation of their own properties.

In other cases, it might be a single messy resident who's bringing a roach problem upon a complex – in that scenario, it's still the landlord's responsibility to do whatever he or she needs to do to eradicate the problem. That can include entering a unit to take offensive and preventive measures. Property management, said Gonzalez, has that right if they give adequate notice to a tenant, usually 24 hours.

"They can go in every day if they want to," he said.

"It's just overwhelming how many problems residents have with roaches," he added, explaining that "it's always a blame game" between residents and property management staff.

Cockroaches are notoriously difficult to get rid of, and Gonzalez said the landlords that monitor their buildings every three to six months and treat them with chemicals that don't have adverse effects on the residents are the most successful at keeping their places virtually roach-free. But in South L.A., he said, it can take landlords years to get a roach problem under control.

Gonzalez emphasized that the landlords do have a responsibility to take care of any problems the property may have, roaches included. If they don't, tenants can report the problem to the L.A. County Department of Public Health. At the root of it all, said Gonzalez, is usually the fact that landlords don't want to pony up the cash.

"At the end of the day, it's going to cost them money to fix this issue," he said.

You can report a roach problem to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health here.

Photo by Stefan Ray via Flickr Creative Commons.

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