Rats in New York City
Rats in New York City are prevalent as in many densely populated areas; politicians and health authorities actively pursue policies and programs to manage the rat population in New York City. The exact number of rats is unknown, but it is estimated that there are at least as many rats as people. The city's rat population is dominated by the brown rat and the black rat.
New York City rats carry pathogens that can cause serious illness, diarrhea, and vomiting in humans in humans, with symptoms that can range from mild to severe, especially if the rats are carrying E. coli, Clostridium difficile (C. diff), or Salmonella. The pathogens that they carry include bacteria that also cause food poisoning (e.g., Salmonella and a strain of E. coli that causes terrible diarrhea), pathogens that cause fevers (such as Leptospira), viruses from groups that contain important human pathogens including sapoviruses, cardioviruses, kobuviruses, parechoviruses, rotaviruses, hepaciviruses, serious and sometimes fatal rat-bite fever, the bubonic plague, typhus, spotted fever, Bartonella pathogens (which can cause a wide range of clinical syndromes in humans, some severe, including cat scratch disease, trench fever, and Carron disease), and Seoul hantavirus — which can cause hemorrhagic fever. These bacteria typically spread when rats leave behind saliva, urine, or feces that humans or their pets come into contact with, and the rats carry fleas (including Oriental rat fleas), lice, and mites that can carry bacteria that can cause serious diseases in humans. In addition to disease risks, higher risk of allergies and asthma is linked to exposure to rodent hair, droppings, and urine, especially in children.
New York City rodent complaints can be made online, or by dialing 311, and the New York City guide Preventing Rats on Your Property discusses how the NYC Health Department inspects private and public properties for rats. Property owners that fail inspections receive a Commissioner's Order and have five days to correct the problem. If after five days the property fails a second inspection, the owner receives a Notice of Violation and possibly fines. If the Health Department feels it must itself exterminate or clean up the property, the property owner is billed.
Studies indicate that within the United States, the city is particularly well-suited for rats, taking into account such variables as (human) population patterns, public sanitation practices, climate, housing construction standards, etc. However, experts consider that the actual population varies, depending on climate, sanitation practices, efforts to control the population, and season.
Though they are rarely seen in daylight and congested areas, rats have been reported in New York since early colonial days. As recently as 1944, two distinct species were prevalent: brown rat, and ship rat (black rat, roof rat). Over the next few decades, the more aggressive brown variety displaced the two others, typically by attacking and killing them, but also by outcompeting them for food and shelter because of their larger size.
Because rats are elusive by nature, public health officials have not developed any reliable way to estimate the prevalence of rats in the city. An often-repeated statistic is that there are more rats than people in the five boroughs of New York City (8.4 million), with some estimates putting the number far higher at as many as four rats per person (32 million). However a 2014 study by Jonathan Auerbach, reported in the Royal Statistical Society's Significance magazine, disagreed with these figures and put the estimate at nearer to 2 million.
Rats primarily find food and shelter at human places and therefore interact with humans in various ways. More often than not, rats are found in corner stores in New York. In particular, the city's rats adapt to practices and habits among New Yorkers for disposing of food waste. Curbside overnight disposal from residences, stores, subway and restaurants, as well as littering, contribute to the sustenance of the city's rats. Rats have shown the ability to adapt to efforts to control them, and rat infestations have increased as a result of budget reductions, more wasteful disposal of food, etc.
Disease, allergies, and asthma
City-dwelling rats carry pathogens that can cause diarrhea and vomiting in humans. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, especially if the rats are carrying E. coli, Clostridium difficile (C. diff), or Salmonella. Serious and sometimes fatal rat-bite fever, and Seoul hantavirus — which can cause hemorrhagic fever — are also carried by rats. These bacteria typically spread when rats leave behind saliva, urine, or feces that humans or their pets come into contact with.
A survey conducted by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in 2014 recorded the DNA of 133 Norway rats trapped throughout Manhattan, focusing on those in residential buildings. The results showed the rats carried numerous pathogens that can cause serious illness in humans, including bacteria that caused food poisoning (e.g., Salmonella and a strain of E. coli that causes terrible diarrhea), pathogens that cause fevers (such as Seoul hantavirus and Leptospira), viruses from groups that contain important human pathogens including sapoviruses, cardioviruses, kobuviruses, parechoviruses, rotaviruses, and hepaciviruses, and also including some never before seen in New York and some completely unknown to science. While at least 18 of the viruses found are known to cause diseases in humans, it is unclear how infectious the rats are to residents. Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit scientific organization that researches links between human health and wildlife, called the study "shocking and surprising," in particular given the close quarters shared by rats and New York City residents, saying "This is a recipe for a public health nightmare".
A 2015 joint study by Columbia University and Cornell University found that diseases including the bubonic plague, typhus, spotted fever, Bartonella pathogens (which can cause a wide range of clinical syndromes in humans, some severe, including cat scratch disease, trench fever, and Carron disease), and various viruses are carried by New York City's rats, and that the rats carry fleas (including Oriental rat fleas), lice, and mites that can carry bacteria that can cause serious diseases in humans. Fleas pass along disease by regurgitating rats’ infected blood and guts when they bite into human hosts. While a 1925 study found one out of five rats were carrying a flea, the Cornell/Columbia study found an average of four fleas on a rat.
Rats in New York have been known to overrun restaurants after hours, crawl up sewer pipes and enter apartments through toilets. They have also attacked homeless people, eaten cadavers in the city morgue, and bitten infants to get food off their faces. In 2003, a fire station in Queens was condemned and demolished after rats had taken over the building. In 2007, a morning news program featured a live report of a pack of rats overrunning a pair of fast food restaurants in Greenwich Village.
Local authorities in New York have long recognized that eliminating rats from the city is unrealistic, but have made various efforts to control their prevalence. The approach has traditionally been reactive: after receiving complaints of infestation, officials would target control efforts at that local site by placing rodent poison.
In recent years, however, the city has adopted a more proactive and strategic approach to rodent control known as integrated pest management, by focusing on preventive measures. Such efforts include developing a rodent control map using geotagging to focus countermeasures more systematically; instituting a "Rodent Control Academy" that trains city employees on rat behavior and control; emphasizing building integrity and garbage disposal, etc. In 2010, the city cut its budget for rodent control programs by $1.5 million to help reduce an overall deficit of $2 billion.
In 2013, it was announced that New York municipal authorities would implement a plan for mass sterilization of the city's rats, using a chemical to neutralize the reproductive systems of female rats. Bait stations loaded with the chemical will be deployed. The chemical's effects will gradually shrink the number of pups a female rat can have in a litter, eventually rendering them infertile.
New York City property owners and residents are advised to keep a keen eye out for signs of infestation like gnawed wood and plastic—rats chew to cut their teeth—and grease and dropping trails. It also pays to inspect for places of entry like gaps around pipes.
New York City publishes a guide for property owners and tenants, entitled Preventing Rats on Your Property, that discusses how the Health Department inspects for rats, and how to control rats, including looking for evidence, cleaning up, starving them, shutting them out, and wiping them out. Rodent baiting is suggested as an effective approach to wiping out rats.
Government complaints and inspections
The New York City guide Preventing Rats on Your Property discusses how the NYC Health Department inspects private and public properties for rats. Property owners that fail inspections receive a Commissioner's Order and have five days to correct the problem. If after five days the property fails a second inspection, the owner receives a Notice of Violation and possibly fines. If the Health Department feels it must itself exterminate or clean up the property, the property owner is billed.
In 2014, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the health department as “weak” in investigating and fixing residents’ rat complaints. From fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2013, pest complaints, including rat problems, increased 10 percent in the city, and 24 percent of the time health department workers failed to inspect the complaints in the 10-day target period, an audit by the comptroller found. In 160 cases, the health department failed to carry out any field inspection.
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