Tens of Thousands of Children -- Mostly Latino and African-American -- Are Poisoned Annually

NEW YORK (August 8, 2005) -- A federal judge today found that the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to protect children from exposure to rat poisons, and directed the agency to require chemical manufacturers to strengthen safeguards.

The decision was the result of a November 2004 lawsuit filed in New York City's federal district court by West Harlem Environmental Action and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The groups challenged EPA's regulations under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The EPA issued safety regulations in 1998 that would have protected children from the poisons, but it revoked them in 2001 after coming to a "mutual agreement" with chemical manufacturers. Judge Jed Rakoff today rejected the agency's reversal, finding that its justification for dropping a key safety measure "lacked even the proverbial 'scintilla' of evidence."

"This is a major victory for children's health -- and for common sense," said Aaron Colangelo, an NRDC attorney. "Parents now will be able to protect their kids and deal with rodent problems in their neighborhoods at the same time. There's no reason why any of our kids should be accidentally poisoned, because it's relatively easy to protect them."

Tens of thousands of children under age six are poisoned every year, and several hundred require hospitalization. Poisoned children can suffer from internal bleeding, bleeding gums and anemia, and can go into a coma.

In 1998, EPA determined that the thousands of annual rat poison exposures were an unreasonable health risk and violated federal pesticide laws. So the agency required manufacturers to include 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." Judge Rakoff today called this explanation a "striking statement" and ruled that the reversal of one of those safety measures -- the bittering agent -- violates the law.

"This court victory marks an important step towards protecting children in communities of color," said Peggy Shepard, executive director of WE ACT. "The basic safety measure required by the court today will protect children from poisoning while still allowing communities to control rats." Studies have found that the safety measures help prevent child poisonings without undermining the effectiveness of rat poisons. A number of leading manufacturers already include a bittering agent in rat poisons sold in the United States.

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; and 26 percent of hospitalized children are Latino, although Latinos comprise only 12 percent of the state's population. Meanwhile, 17.5 percent of the children hospitalized for rodenticide poisoning are below the poverty level, although children living below the poverty level comprise only 13 percent of the state's population.

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.