How a new generation of rat poisons menaces children

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A 1-year-old boy starts vomiting and experiencing diarrhea. Later, ripped-up remains of a container that held rat poison are found behind the family’s television.

A mother puts out two green blocks of rat poison and they disappear. Her 2-year-old son breaks out in a fever. His stool is colored bright green.

A 2-year-old boy walks into a room carrying rat poison. Seeing blisters, his parents whisk him to the hospital emergency room, where he is hooked up to a cardiac monitor for several hours

Scenes like these – which were documented in a government report – have been playing out routinely in American homes for decades. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has known for a generation that kids have too-easy access to these super-toxic rat poisons.

Every year, more than 10,000 kids are getting hold of them, and virtually all of these calls to U.S. poison control centers concern children under the age of 3.

Black and Hispanic children living below the poverty line are disproportionately affected. For example, a study in New York found that 57 percent of children hospitalized for eating rat poison from 1990 to 1997 were African-American and 26 percent were Latino.

EPA reported that these rat poisons “are, by far, the leading cause of [pesticide-related] visits to health care facilities in children under the age of six years and the second leading cause of hospitalization.”

Poisoned children can suffer internal bleeding, coma, anemia, nosebleeds, bleeding gums, bloody urine and bloody stools. Authorities have known for decades that thousands of children each year are exposed – although, fortunately, most are not seriously injured.

Known as anti-coagulants, the chemicals prevent blood from clotting or coagulating. One is known as warfarin – the same chemical sold to people as Coumadin, a prescription blood thinner.

A new "super toxic" strain came along in the 1970s because it required only a single dose to kill a rat. The Brand names include Havoc, Talon, Contrac, Maki, Ratimus and d-CON Mouse Pruf II.

EPA now is moving to curb widespread use of these rodenticides, starting next June. That move, however, could be short-circuited by a lawsuit filed by the multinational corporation the sells d-CON products.

Pesticide manufacturers, applicators and health officials say controlling rats is an important public health goal because they can spread a number of diseases, including hemorrhagic fever, leptospirosis, salmonellosis and rat bite fever.

But the amount of time EPA took to deal with the threat to children is disgraceful, said Aaron Colangelo, an attorney for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council who sued to force EPA action.

“EPA published notices in the ‘90s saying the number of poisonings amounted to a significant threat,” Colangelo said. “It’ll be 20 years later almost before safety measures are in place. “That’s a real shame.”

Records show that the EPA was aware kids were getting into these poisons in significant numbers at least as early as 1983. An average of 1,562 human exposures to rodenticides were reported annually from 1970 to 1982.

At least partly because of a better reporting system, that number had increased nearly sevenfold by 1988. Between 2004 and 2008, U.S. poison control centers continued to receive 10,000 to 14,000 calls about the ratkillers annually.

The EPA has estimated that these incidents reported to poison-control centers probably accounted for only about one-fourth of all exposures. On average, about 3,700 of these cases were treated by medical professionals each year, according to reports of the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The Clinton administration’s EPA declared in 1998 that the rat poisons had to be reformulated to taste bitter, so kids wouldn’t eat them; and to add a bright dye that would make it obvious if a child had put the material in his or her mouth.

But the EPA under President Bush backed down on those requirements. In 2001, citing a “mutual agreement” worked out in a series of meetings with pesticide makers and other government agencies, the agency reversed course. Some pesticide makers thought putting a bittering agent into the poisons would make rats less likely to eat the products, although other manufacturers found bittering agents that allowed the pesticides to work.

When Colangelo filed suit on behalf of NRDC and West Harlem Environmental Action in 2004, U.S. District Court Judge U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff ordered EPA to take another look at its control measures. He criticized the EPA’s reversal of itself in the face of industry opposition.

“The EPA lacked even the proverbial ‘scintilla’ of evidence justifying its reversal of the requirement it had imposed, after extensive study, only a few years before,” the judge ruled.

The new rules are voluminous, but the basic changes are:

• Banning the sale of loose baits to consumers.

• Disallowing the sale of the highly toxic second-generation rat poisons at the retail level. Currently they are commonly sold at grocery, drug and hardware stores.

• Limiting the amount of bait that can be sold over the counter to no more than one pound, and only in bait stations designed to keep out kids and dogs.

• Allowing professional exterminators and employees of farms and businesses to continue to use the loose baits and the more-toxic rodenticides – but requiring them to be put onto above-ground locations where they cannot be disturbed by children, pets or wildlife. These baits also may not be placed more than 50 feet from a building.

Until June 2011, consumers can continue to buy and use the loose rat poisons.

Pesticide industry officials challenge the notion that restricting use of rat poisons is a good strategy to improve public health. The real problem, they say, is that rats are so prevalent and can pass along serious diseases.

They acknowledge that thousands of calls come in to poison-control centers annually, but point out that very few result in longstanding harm to children or others.

A 2006 EPA study of children under 6 exposed to all rat poisons, including first-generation rodenticides, found that 68,005 kids were exposed to the pesticides. Of those, 18,084 went to a health care facility, with 302 hospitalized and 219 put into the intensive-care unit, the study showed.

“You’re looking at very low numbers of exposures that (usually only) require observation,” said Karen Reardon, spokeswoman for a pesticide lobbying organization call Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment. “The benefits of the products are quite enormous, especially if you’re living in an environment where most people have exposure to rats.”

Not everyone can afford to pay an exterminator for monthly service, Reardon said, adding that in the Washington, D.C., area, where she lives, such a service costs about $80 a month. And alternatives like glue traps or snap traps also send kids to the emergency room, she said.

Reardon highlighted several incidents that she said make the case for continued use of the second-generation rodenticides. In 2007 in New York City, in a highly publicized case, a KFC/Taco Bell had rats running rampant. One employee was bitten, and customers who complained were told they did not have to pay for their order. The same year, also in New York City, the Daily News reported that a mother sleeping with her 8-month-old son in her bed in order to protect him from rats in the apartment building accidentally smothered the child to death.

“The products have a benefit or they wouldn’t be on the market,” Reardon said.

Reckitt Benckiser, a multinational consumer-products marketer, filed suit in federal court to prevent EPA’s new rules from going into effect.

The company says restrictions on use of rat poison likely will lead to “potentially significant public health consequences.”

“The company wants to ensure that safe and affordable rodenticides remain available to everyday consumers who cannot afford pest control treatments by professional services,” Reckitt Benckiser said in a statement.

This this story by InvestigateWest was commissioned by Environmental Health News, non-profit journalism site that seeks advance the public’s understanding of environmental health issues.

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