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Minneapolis Newspaper on EPA Rat Poison Controversy

From: Minneapolis Star-Tribune Editorial Page 11/22/04

Childproof: EPA Eases Up on Rat Poison

November 22, 2004

This time, nobody at the Environmental Protection Agency is coming forward
to trumpet another milestone in regulatory reform. But it's easy to see why
the agency prefers a "no comment" stance regarding its reversal of past
practice on rat poison -- the sort of government misstep that might leave
anyone speechless.

In 1998, EPA began to require child-proofing of rat poisons that were
manufactured in candy-like pastel pellets. Manufacturers were made to give
the pellets a bitter taste and a bright dye -- the former to discourage
small children from eating more than a few of the pellets they might find in
their apartment houses, parks or schools, the latter to alert grown-ups when
poison had been consumed.

Some poison-makers -- but not all -- argued that these additives made their
products less effective in killing rats, and that this concern should
outweigh the risks of harm to "nontarget species," which included domestic
pets as well as little kids. And in 2001, after giving the companies unusual
access to its deliberations, EPA decided to abandon the child-proofing
rules.

So far this year, poison-control centers have reported about 50,000 cases of
children under 6 requiring medical treatment for accidental ingestion of rat
poisons, whose effects can include internal bleeding, anemia and coma.
That's three times as many as in the first full year of the childproofing
requirements.

Of course, not all of those cases were terribly serious. Only several
hundred of the children required hospitalization. And for this, perhaps,
everyone should give thanks -- but especially the inner-city poor, whose
kids are most likely to mistake rat poison for a treat.

West Harlem Environmental Action, an activist group especially attuned to
this sad reality, says that 57 percent of children hospitalized because of
rat poison in New York state are black, and 26 percent are Latino -- a
frequency far out of proportion to their shares of the population (16 and 12
percent, respectively).

So the West Harlem group is suing to force the EPA to abandon this
regulatory change. So is the National Resources Defense Council, a watchdog
on the overall question of children's exposure to environmental toxins --
like airborne mercury emissions from power plants, which are also getting
more benevolent EPA treatment in the Bush administration.

The EPA has declined to discuss the issues raised in the lawsuit. Earlier in
the year, though, agency officials pointed out that rats pose a health
hazard to children too, and they touted the benefits of better warning
labels and applicator instructions.

At the time of the mercury rollbacks, we thought they might take the cake
for a cynical, business-driven recasting of sensible national policy. It
seems we lacked imagination. To bow to business pressure and take the
child-proofing out of rat poison seems the stuff of parody, something you
might read in the Onion. But this is no joke.