Near the drugstore counter where Maggie Sergio recently filled a prescription stood a large display of d-CON. The popular rat and mouse killer was available without a doctor's order -- or proof of age or exterminator certification, for that matter. The incongruity struck Sergio.
"Anyone can buy rat poison," she said. "That's scary."
What makes this fact so frightening to Sergio, a former wildlife rehabilitator, are the dangers that the poison pellets can pose to animals other than rodents -- bald eagles, mountain lions, pet dogs -- as well as to children. Despite acknowledging these risks for more than a decade, the U.S. government continues to allow d-CON and other highly toxic, long-lasting rat poisons to remain on store shelves.
"Calling these products the next DDT is not a stretch," said Sergio, who has blogged for The Huffington Post on the issue.
Sergio is not alone in her concerns. On Monday, a letter signed by 24 environmental and public health advocates was sent to top officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, urging them to follow through with the agency's threat to ban the consumer sale of toxic rodenticides. The so-called second-generation products debuted in the 1970s, around the same time that DDT was banned in the U.S. because of the insecticide's known harm to more than just pests.
EPA officials declined repeated requests to discuss the rat poison issue on the record, but a spokeswoman wrote in an email that the agency has "not yet made the final decision" regarding a ban, but is "currently considering next steps with the goal of ensuring that all rodenticide products are efficacious, affordable and safe."
The letter to the EPA deplores ongoing "corporate defiance" and its "tragic consequences," including the "gruesome deaths" of wildlife and pets.
When rats and mice eat d-CON, a potent anticoagulant poison, they don't die right away. Deterioration in the blood's ability to clot takes up to a week to become fatal, during which time the animal grows increasingly dazed and sluggish and therefore more vulnerable to predators. The poison can then build up in the bodies of these larger animals, sometimes leading to their own demise as their blood vessels, too, essentially explode. This was found to be the fate of three beloved red-tailed hawks in Manhattan earlier this year.
Experts are also concerned that a sub-lethal dose could be indirectly fatal to the predators: Slowed down physically or mentally, for example, they might become easy road kill.
"We're often killing some of the animals that would be doing rodent control for us: raptors, coyotes, bobcats," said Stella McMillin of the California Department of Fish and Game's Wildlife Investigations Laboratory, where the majority of carnivores and scavengers tested in recent years have carried rat poison in their bodies.
What's more, the blocks and loose pellets of retail poison products can end up in the hands and mouths of curious toddlers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 12,000 to 15,000 young children are exposed to rat poison every year, often leading to internal bleeding, anemia and other harms. Most of the children are not seriously hurt.
In June 2008, the EPA gave rodenticide manufacturers three years to comply with new safety measures, including using alternatives to such second-generation anticoagulants as brodifacoum. Some companies complied with the agency's requirements, excluding these toxic chemicals as well as enclosing their retail poison in plastic bait stations to limit access by pets and kids. However, Spectrum Brands, Liphatech Inc. and d-CON manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser continue to sell their noncompliant products while legally challenging the idea of an EPA ban.
Hal Ambuter, director of regulatory and government affairs for Reckitt Benckiser, argues that taking the products off the consumer market might actually expose more children to both poisons and rodents. Alternative chemicals such as the neurotoxin bromethalin are potentially more toxic and less treatable than the anticoagulants, he said. Moreover, he suggested that increased prices for products that include bait stations or the cost of hiring professional exterminators might make rodent protection prohibitively expensive.
"The people that need rodenticides the most -- in the inner city, where rodent populations are highest -- are usually the ones most economically disadvantaged and who can barely afford it in the first place," said Ambuter.
(Of note, 62 percent of all hospitalizations for accidental pesticide exposure in New York occur among low-income, Medicaid recipients, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.)
"Everyone agrees that rodents are a public health pest that carry a wide variety of diseases, which we're seeing cropping up lately," added Ambuter, pointing to an Oregon man who last month contracted the plague while trying to save a cat choking on a mouse. The CDC estimates that Americans suffer 15,000 rat bites occur each year. Rodent droppings can also spread disease.
With regards to the unintended wildlife casualties, Ambuter contends that the EPA is going after the "wrong player," suggesting that professional and agricultural use of rodenticides is more to blame than retail products. His company's rat poison is intended for indoor use only. Critics, however, point out that a rodent exposed indoors may venture outdoors in search of water during its last days of life. And consumers may not always follow a manufacturer's directions, or may miss the fine print altogether.
Research published last month discovered commercial rodenticide in dead fisher cats, members of the weasel family that are currently a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. The evidence implicated illegal pot farms, where researchers recovered packets of d-CON and other rat poison products.
The new study also strengthened the evidence that rodenticides can spread through the food chain not only when predators eat poisoned prey, but also when soil and water are contaminated.
"For the sake of the nation's wildlife, for the sake of the nation's children and pets, we're asking Reckitt Benckiser, Spectrum and Liphatech to stop putting profits before safety, and we're asking the EPA to go ahead and issue the notice of intent to cancel based on the last 15 years of very solid research and risk assessment," said Cynthia Palmer, manager of the pesticides program at the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy and facilitator of Monday's letter.
Given that the "process to get a product off the shelf is so cumbersome," said Sergio, local efforts are also key -- especially those that focus on prevention. In Marin County, Calif., where she lives, cleaning up garbage and removing ground cover has been highly successful in reducing the number of rats.
"If you can eliminate [the rats'] food, water and shelter," said Sergio, "you're going to deal with the majority of the issue."