NEW YORK — In the urban warfare against rats, children become casualties, poisoned in greater numbers every year by the pastel pellets scattered like candy around playgrounds, public housing and schools to keep rodents at bay.
The children are victims of the politics of poison control, environmental activists said Saturday, because federal regulators revoked safety measures designed to childproof the millions of pounds of rat poisons applied nationally every year.
In New York Federal District Court on Tuesday, an environmental group in Harlem and the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington filed suit to reinstate federal controls that reduced the risk to children from rat poisons. The measures were abandoned in 2001 by the Environmental Protection Agency after it consulted with the chemical companies that manufactured the poisons.
"They pulled the safety measures but allowed the rat poisons to stay on the market," said defense council lawyer Aaron Colangelo, who prepared the lawsuit. "Since then, the number of reported child poisonings has gone up every year," he said. "We think this is happening across the country."
This year, more than 50,000 children in the U.S. ages 6 and younger were sickened by eating rodent-control toxins, three times as many as in the first full year after the safety measures were adopted, according to the American Assn. of Poison Control Centers.
The children suffer internal bleeding and anemia, among other maladies, and can fall into a coma. Several hundred required hospitalization last year.
Rat poisons harm children in all ethnic communities, but poor African American and Latino children are affected disproportionately, said Peggy Shepard, director of West Harlem Environmental Action, the group that filed the lawsuit. The group works with Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health to monitor medical issues in the neighborhood. In New York state, 57% of children hospitalized for rodenticide poisoning are black, although 16% of the population is black; 26% of hospitalized children are Latino, yet Latinos make up 12% of the population.
"We now feel we have to go to court," Shepard said. "That's our last resort. Children in the community are needlessly getting ill."
EPA officials in Washington would not discuss the lawsuit Friday or explain why the safety regulations were dropped.
"We are reviewing the complaint, and we will respond accordingly," EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said. She would not elaborate.
According to the lawsuit, in 1998 the EPA started to withhold approval of rat poisons unless manufacturers included two safety measures to protect children: an ingredient that makes the poison taste more bitter and a dye to make it more obvious when a child ingested the poison. In 2001, however, the agency said that it "came to a mutual agreement with the rodenticide [manufacturers] to rescind the bittering agent and indicator dye requirements."
Nowhere in the United States is the problem of rat control believed to be more acute than in the maze of Manhattan.
Estimates of how many rats make New York their home vary from as few as 500,000 to as many as 44 million. Most experts suggest there may be one rat for each of the city's 8 million residents.
Complaints about rodents have increased 40% in the last two years, the city health department says, and the city exterminated 84,000 rats at a cost of $13 million in the last 12 months.
Rat poisons are used heavily throughout New York in public housing, schools and parks. Householders usually buy rat poison in childproof containers, but government agencies often buy the poison in bulk as drums of loose pellets.
In a single year, about 800 pounds of rat poison were used in the General Grant Houses, a west Harlem public housing project that is home to 4,500 people. The same rat poisons were used in nearby Morningside Park as well as at the two neighborhood elementary schools.
As a result, the children living in the General Grant Houses -- and probably those in other areas of the city -- may be exposed to these poisons wherever they go: at home, at school and in local parks.