WASHINGTON -- November 9 -- The Environmental Protection Agency has failed to protect children from exposure to chemical rat poisons, according to a lawsuit filed today by West Harlem Environmental Action (WEACT) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The groups filed the lawsuit in federal district court in New York City.
The agency introduced safety regulations in 1998 that would have protected children from the poisons, but it revoked those regulations in 2001. Tens of thousands of children are poisoned every year; African-American and Latino children suffer disproportionately.
"The EPA is allowing the chemical industry to continue to sell rat poisons without adding ingredients that would protect children," said Aaron Colangelo, an NRDC attorney. "There is an easy and effective solution to the problem, but the agency sided with industry instead of our kids."
In 1998, when the EPA determined that rat poison exposures are an unreasonable health risk in violation of federal pesticide laws, it refused to approve rat poisons unless manufacturers included two safety measures to protect children: an ingredient that makes the poison taste more bitter and a dye that would make it more obvious when a child ingested the poison. In 2001, however, EPA revoked the safety regulations, announcing that it "came to a mutual agreement with the rodenticide [manufacturers] to rescind the bittering agent and indicator dye requirements."
The number of reported child poisonings has increased annually since EPA's policy reversal, according to Poison Control Center data. Every year more than 15,000 children under age six accidentally eat rat poisons, and several hundred require hospitalization. Poisoned children can suffer from internal bleeding, bleeding gums, and anemia, and can go into a coma.
Rat poisons harm children in all communities, but African-American and Latino children and children living below the poverty level suffer a disproportionate risk. In New York state, for example, 57 percent of children hospitalized for rodenticide poisoning are black, although only 16 percent of New York state's population is black; 26 percent of hospitalized children are Latino, although Latinos comprise only 12 percent of the state's population; and 17.5 percent of the children hospitalized are below the poverty level, although children living below the poverty level comprise only 13 percent of the state's population.
Studies have found that the safety measures do not undermine the effectiveness of the rat poisons. One manufacturer already includes a bittering agent in a leading rat poison sold in the United States because it is required in other countries, and has found it to be equally effective at killing rats as poisons without the bittering agent.
"There is no tradeoff between more child poisonings on the one hand and more rats on the other," said Veronica Eady, general counsel for WEACT. "These basic safety measures would protect children without making the rat poisons less effective at killing rats."
Millions of pounds of rat poisons are applied nationally every year. In New York City, for example, rat poisons are used heavily in public housing, public schools and city parks. Some 800 pounds of these rat poisons were used in the General Grant Houses in West Harlem in 2000 alone, and the same rat poisons were used in nearby Morningside Park, as well as two elementary schools in the same neighborhood. As a result, children living in the General Grant Houses - and likely in other areas of the city - may be exposed to these rat poisons at home, at school and in local parks.
WEACT and NRDC are filing the lawsuit to challenge EPA's reversal of the child safety measures. The groups charge EPA's policy reversal violates the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 1 million members and e-activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Santa Monica and San Francisco.