Poisons Used to Kill Rodents Have Safer Alternatives
A second generation of ultra-potent rodenticides creates a first-class crisis for people, pets, and wildlife.
Currently Reckitt Benckiser is accusing the EPA of discriminating against minorities and low-income families. "They're trying to turn this into an environmental-justice issue," says Cynthia Palmer, who runs the American Bird Conservancy's pesticides program. "That's ridiculous. All the studies show that it's actually these low-income kids who are getting poisoned. The New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene went to EPA's scientific advisory panel back in November 2011 and said, 'No way, we don't need these poisons. We support your 2008 order.' "
The EPA has been no less aggressive in exposing Reckitt Benckiser's fiction. It notes that "data indicate that children in low-income families are disproportionately exposed [to rodenticides]."
Secondary poisoning is even more of a public issue in California than in New York. On July 4, 2007, Berkeley resident Dan Rubino found two dead birds in his swimming pool and called his neighbor, wildlife advocate Lisa Owens Viani. She identified them as juvenile Cooper's hawks. Because they had sought water she suspected rodenticide poisoning--a suspicion confirmed by the University of California-Davis, which found brodifacoum in their livers.
Owens Viani then cofounded Raptors are the Solution (RATS), a national alliance of citizens, nonprofit groups, and local governments that educates consumers and municipalities about safe methods of rodent control and the dangers of second-generation poisons. "My neighbor was going to throw those birds [the two Cooper's hawks] in the garbage can," she says. "A lot of people don't even know what they are. I think we're just seeing a tiny percent of what's happening." (Owens Viani went on to serve as development director for Golden Gate Audubon, stepping down in November to devote her time to RATS.)
Because federal regulations supersede local action, municipalities can't ban pesticide sales. But in California, thanks largely to RATS and the Hungry Owl Project out of San Anselmo, all of Marin County and seven cities--Albany, Richmond, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Emeryville, Belmont, and San Francisco--have passed resolutions discouraging the sale of second-generation rodenticides and urging stores to remove the products from their shelves. RATS is trying to get the California Department of Pesticide Regulation to cancel or refuse to renew registration of products containing them.
The San Francisco Department of the Environment has launched a citywide educational campaign for consumers called "Don't Take the Bait" and has sent letters to 130 retailers asking them to voluntarily discontinue selling dangerous rodenticides. One hundred stores, including Walgreens, with 60 outlets, and Sloat Garden Centers, with 14, have made the pledge. Lowe's and Home Depot ignored the request.
The 10-year-old Hungry Owl Project, founded and directed by former wildlife rehabber Alex Godbe, distributes safe, effective rodenticide in the form of barn owls. Once the group has prevailed on a vineyard owner to cease poisoning the gophers that gnaw grapevine roots, it erects, monitors, and maintains barn-owl nesting boxes. Currently Godbe's outfit is working with 25 vineyards. Where gophers are causing the most damage, she recommends four to six owl boxes per 50 acres, and gets 80 percent to 90 percent occupancy.
"We work particularly with barn owls because they're one of the few raptors that are almost nonterritorial," says Godbe. "So if there's enough food, you can have almost as many owls as owl boxes. And we advocate for other predators--coyotes, foxes, mountain lions, badgers, skunks, bobcats, raccoons, opossums. WildCare, a rehab facility in San Rafael and our partner organization, tests birds and mammals. I was shocked to learn that 79.1 percent of the animals it tested were positive for rodenticides. We're killing off the natural rodent control."
Of course, natural rodent control is not always available in heavily developed areas. Nor does it help much if rodents are multiplying inside your house. But that doesn't mean you need weapons of mass destruction. Safe alternatives include single- and multiple-entrance snap traps, electrocuting traps, glue traps (provided you use them only indoors and frequently dispatch stuck rodents), and even first-generation baits with these active ingredients: chlorophacinone, diphacinone, diphacinone sodium salt, war-farin, and warfarin sodium salt.
Then there's the "better mouse trap." You take a metal rod, run it through holes drilled in the center of both lids of an emptied tin soup can so the can becomes a spinning drum. Fasten both ends of the rod to the top of a plastic bucket via drilled holes. Coat the can with peanut butter, and fill the bucket with water and a shot of liquid soap (to break the surface tension and thus facilitate quicker, more humane drowning). Mice and rats jump onto the can, and it spins them into the water. The first time I deployed the device in my New Hampshire fishing camp, it killed 37 mice between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.
Not only are these alternatives safer for people, pets and wildlife, they are, in the long run, more effective because they don't take out the mammals and birds that keep rodents in check. With second-generation poisons you'll get a spectacular initial kill. But a year or two later rodents will come storming back, as Jeannine Altmeyer can attest. You'll then be fighting a war without allies.