THE BLOG
12/28/2010 09:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rat Poison: Why 10,000 Toddlers Poisoned Each Year

Would a modern educated society allow their children to eat rat poison? I was shocked to find out that we do. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported last week that 10,000 toddlers are poisoned every year from the ingestion of rat poison; a sobering statistic that makes even a toxicologist who feels like he's seen it all stop in his tracks. You don't need to know the details regarding which chemicals are in rat poison and what they do to a toddler when ingested. It's obvious that this is a horrid chemical accident that shouldn't be allowed in one home, much less 10,000 annually. Fortunately many of these accidents are discovered soon enough for an antidote or stomach pump to work. But what kind of thinking allows this to occur? I'm not suggesting that anyone would stand by and watch a toddler break into a rat poison bait station. But yet the makers and the regulators know this is exactly what will happen in some percentage of homes, and it is allowed to go on.

The reason put forward is that the poison is needed in a rat infestation because rats carry disease and their bite can lead to all sorts of infections, not to mention trauma. The pesticide industry points to the case of the mother sleeping in bed with her 8-month-old to protect him from the rats at night and she smothered him -- isn't rat poison a better solution than that? The poison has to be sweet tasting so rats will eat it all up, but so will a little kid or pet if they find the pellets. Attempts by the government to get rat poison makers to spice it with bitter flavors so that it won't taste like candy to a toddler have been met with resistance by the industry -- it'll render the bait ineffective is the claim. And of course, there is the retort that the package warns against leaving it where a child or pet could reach it -- so it's really your fault if your kid succumbs to their product. The trouble with that logic is that kids and pets are very resourceful creatures who may outsmart adults who may not be thinking so clearly when overwhelmed by a rat problem, amidst who knows how many other emergencies. We shouldn't be placing a loaded gun in the hands of a child. Similarly we shouldn't be placing rat poison in the hands of a general public in which some members don't read labels or follow directions or even speak English. This is an environmental justice issue in which the urban poor are disproportionately affected -- 83 percent of the poisoned kids are African American or Latino. But it can happen in any family that brings rat poison into the home.

I believe there is an underlying reason that this has gone on for decades (it has worsened in recent years due to more intense rat problems in crowded urban areas). It's part of the quick-fix mentality to solving environmental problems. If you have a mosquito problem, rather than getting rid of the conditions that breed mosquitoes, you zap them with pesticide. You have air pollution problems from car exhaust so you blend a chemical into gas (MTBE) that makes the gas burn a little cleaner instead of building a mass transit infrastructure that effectively takes cars off the road. Your high blood pressure is treated with pills rather than diet and exercise. The lack of prevention and the tendency to reach for the quick fix chemical solution is often ineffective and sometimes downright dangerous.

Getting back to rats, they turn up when there are overcrowded unsanitary conditions. Properly fitting garbage cans and regular refuse pickup are essential rat preventives. An infested neighborhood or building needs a major cleanup and perhaps also professional exterminator help, not a unit by unit rat poison quick fix that puts little kids at maximum risk. Public education is a huge key to prevention in this and so many other issues.

Finally after many years of fighting with the industry, EPA and Health Canada appear to be gaining ground. Within the next year or two we may see bitterants added to the pellets and better childproof containers. In the meantime, keep your abode clear of debris and food droppings, properly dispose of your garbage and if you see rats in the neighborhood, call your town hall -- they may help get rid of them. If you do use rat poison, please keep it under lock and key and only apply it far out of the reach of little hands or paws.