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Harlem's Toxic Nightmare

Black and Latino children are paying the price for the mismanagement that has many public housing projects saturated in pesticides and literally crawling with rats.
 
 
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Sarah Martin has lived in the Gen. Ulysses S. Grant Houses in West Harlem for 48 years, since she was 16 years old. She met me one brisk Sunday afternoon in April to give a guided tour of the public housing complex -- and of the army of rodents with which residents share it.

After years as the tenants association president, Martin has morphed into the archetype of a neighborhood matriarch-activist. Her union local is stitched in gold on the back of her windbreaker; her long, grey hair flows from under a matching union cap. And as we stroll through the complex, she genteelly answers the reverent greetings of neighbors in one breath, then heaps scorn on the public housing authority in the next.

The complex is a rodent's dream, an all-you-can-eat buffet supplied by the trash of 4,400 residents. "The whole area is infested with rats," Martin says. "And as long as they have food and water, all they do is have sex and have babies."

She points out open-top trashcans overflowing with discarded food containers. Old recycling bins at the buildings' back doors have long transformed into makeshift garbage cans, also overflowing. Residents are supposed to put their trash down chutes on each floor, but the bags are often too big and thus get tossed in the stairwell.

Two large metal compactors that Martin finally cajoled officials into installing as safe outdoor spots for trash storage haven't actually been turned on or emptied in a while. During the day, pigeons feast on the Wonderbread slices and McDonald's fries that are scattered around the compactors; come nightfall, the rats will dine.

A coalition of state attorneys general say this is the scene in far too many public housing complexes around the country. In September, five states and the Virgin Islands sued the Department of Housing and Urban Development to change its pest control policies. Housing authorities, the suit charges, employ thousands of pounds of highly toxic pesticides in an effort to fight pests that could have been prevented in the first place. The result is a growing annual case load of childhood poisonings -- a case load that is disturbingly heavy with poor blacks and Latinos.

Pesticides of all sorts are extremely toxic; one of those on the market today was previously a World War II nerve gas. Nearly 100,000 human exposures to pesticides were reported in 2003, about a fifth of those involved rodenticides, or rat poisons. Young kids, who crawl around and put things in their mouths, account for the bulk of the rodenticide exposures; they racked up 15,000 poisonings in 2003. The Environmental Protection Agency, however, estimates that all of these reported numbers represent no more than a quarter of the actual totals.

There's no national data on the amount of pesticides used in public housing, but Sarah Martin's complex alone used 800 pounds of rat poison in one year. Other data from New York paint a troubling picture of racial and economic disparity. Eighty-three percent of New York kids hospitalized for exposure to rodenticides are black or Latino, nearly a fifth are in families with incomes below the poverty level.

Not that this sort of imbalance is unusual. From low birth weights to asthma, poor urban communities are besieged by preventable illnesses associated with environmental hazards.

Martin's Harlem neighborhood is typical. She's old enough to remember when the iconic Hudson River waterfront was a place you actually wanted to be near. "We would go on boat rides," she recalls. "They used to have concerts over there. But all that's long gone."

Today, the view of the Palisades perched on the opposite bank is still there, but there's also a plant treating 170 million gallons of sewage a day. The ferries that used to shuttle area residents along the river stopped in the 1950s when a highway cut the neighborhood off from the waterfront. That highway now links to the George Washington Bridge, which boasts a higher volume of daily traffic than any in the country. That's probably not as significant as the diesel fumes that shoot out of more than 200 city buses housed a block away.

In the early 1990s, area residents formed West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), and sued the state, winning an impressive new park -- built on top of the sewage plant. Martin counts it a strange victory. "They could've kept the damn park," she scoffs, "and the sewage treatment plant too."

She's put her finger on a point that urban public health watchers have been trying to make for a while now. It's the old maxim about an ounce of prevention: Don't screw neighborhoods up in the first place, and we'll save both the lawsuit and the compromise settlement. That's what makes pesticide poisonings remarkable among environmental health hazards: They are so utterly avoidable. There's unique scientific agreement -- even within federal government -- that if you take easy and affordable steps to prevent rats and bugs, you won't need poison.

The attorneys general suing HUD want the department to make cities use something called "integrated pest management," which is a fancy term for prevention. Trashcans with lids that seal should be abundant. Maintenance crews should put screens in windows and plug holes around pipes coming through the floor. Most importantly, rather than showing up with poison when there's a complaint, staff should regularly inspect for signs of pests, then start with non-toxic solutions.

In 1996, spurred by studies showing how quickly kids metabolize pesticides, Congress ordered all federal agencies to start using these preventive techniques and to "promote Integrated Pest Management through procurement and regulatory policies."

So, in October 2003, 10 states and the Virgin Islands officially asked HUD to demand that public housing authorities include in their annual reports an explanation of their preventive pest-management programs. Washington rejected the request, offering no explanation beyond an assertion that the department is already in compliance with the law. "We turned around and sued them," says Michael Surgen, chief scientist for the New York attorney general's environmental protection bureau.

New York has led the state-level charge against rat poison, and Surgen has been New York's leading rat man for more than 25 years. "I don't know what HUD's problem is," Surgen says. "Most institutions that reject integrated pest management raise concerns about cost." But is it actually more expensive? "There's little data either way," Surgen concedes.

There's certainly plenty of data showing that it works better. A handful of public housing authorities have run pilot programs that abandoned poison for preventive controls. In 1999, New York City launched one in an East Harlem complex. Almost half of the apartments that had mice at the start of the program didn't six months later.

But more to the point, integrated pest management is the preferred choice for both the Pentagon and the White House. The Department of Defense has been using it since 1993, and has reduced its use of pesticides on military instillations by half. A "greening" initiative begun under the Clinton Administration and continued by Bush has reduced White House use of pesticides by 80 percent. Meanwhile, Washington doesn't even collect data on the amount of pesticides used in public housing.

Of course, agencies like the Pentagon have an advantage over public housing in making prevention work: They are in total control of their property. Nor are the housing authorities directly responsible for all poisonings. Residents themselves quickly reach not only for over-the-counter poisons, but also more heavy-duty, professional strength solutions found on the black market. "There are pesticides sold on the street corner just the way illicit drugs are," Surgen says. "You can put a dent in it, but you can't eliminate it."

While the attorneys general focus on HUD, a coalition of environmental groups has launched a parallel battle with the EPA. They want the agency to demand tighter safety precautions on rodenticides.

The most commonly used rat poisons are anticoagulants. They interrupt the process by which blood clots, while simultaneously undermining the ability of the capillaries to hold blood. This two-pronged attack forces uncontrolled internal bleeding in the unlucky rodent -- or toddler -- who mistakes the poison for food. About 13 ounces of one of the more popular brands will kill a 10-pound dog.

In reaction to mounting research showing the unique threat rat poisons in particular present to kids, in 1998 EPA mandated that manufacturers include two safety precautions. One, called a "bittering agent," would sour the pellets' taste so that kids who started eating them would spit them out. In addition, manufacturers were told to add a dye that would cause a child's skin to discolor after exposure, to alert parents and doctors.

The manufacturers soon formed a lobby group and began pressuring for a rule change. They lodged two complaints. The dye proposal, they noted, was too complicated to implement: Where would they get a temporary dye? What about the inadvertent damage the dyes would do to a user's property? As for the bittering agent, the industry warned that it would put rats off the bait, leaving them to run amok in the nation's cities.

By spring of 1999, according to internal documents obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the EPA had told a meeting of industry lobbyists that the rule "would be amended in the future." And in the fall of 2001, the agency reversed itself, dropping the rule altogether. Only one manufacturer, Syngenta, ever marketed a product with either safety precaution.

In its rule reversal, the EPA articulated the same concerns industry lobbyists had put forth. But it did not reject any of its previous findings about the toxicity of rodenticides or about their unique threat to young children. And, despite its conclusion that the safety precautions could worsen rat infestation, it allowed that manufacturers could voluntarily include the precautions if they so chose. NRDC and WE ACT have sued to get the rule reinstated.

All of this isn't abnormal on its face; federal agencies reverse themselves. But the documents NRDC unearthed show a startling amount of input from industry. Parallel to its discussions about safety precautions, the agency was studying the threat rodenticides pose to animals beyond rats. When the study was done, industry got over a year to review it before publication, and e-mails between agency staffers show remarkable deference to manufactures. One staffer described her work on the document as ensuring, among other things, that there'd be "no words/phrases etc that could evoke emotion on the part of" industry lobbyists. Another e-mail discussed an agency staffer's charge to edit out the word "poisoning" and replace it with "treated or dosed."

Of course, putting stronger safety features in rodenticides is a lot like building a park on top of a sewage treatment plant anyway-it doesn't address the larger problem of failed prevention. To Sarah Martin, the whole conversation is just one more example of the environmental dumping her neighborhood has faced since she was a teen.

Environmental health, however, gains little traction among tenants because it lacks the immediacy of competing problems. "They got what they feel is a priority of complaints," Martin explains. "Our buildings are 50 years old-there're bad pipes, repairs that are overdue because of cutbacks."

The piling up of concerns -- and the constant duplicity of those that shape the urban environment -- also fosters fatalism, which even Martin isn't immune to. Recently, Harlem residents derailed a plan to reopen a waste transfer station on the waterfront, perched just below the sewage plant. But even after all Martin did to keep the station offline, she's not convinced anything's changed. "I bet my Social Security check," she sighs, "it's not gonna stay closed."

Kai Wright is a freelance journalist in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn.