Politics & Policy

Inner-City Pests

The dangers of the war on pesticides.

The American Journal of Public Health last month cited roaches and rodents as “environmental triggers” that cause or intensify asthma attacks among low-income black and minority children. Asthma cases roughly have doubled since 1980, with poor, urban kids suffering the most. A 2000 HHS study found that blacks were four times likelier than whites to visit emergency rooms due to asthma. Researchers believe cockroach droppings and body parts as well as rat and mouse dander exacerbate this health menace. Roaches also transmit salmonella while rodents can contaminate food and cause “rat bite fever.”

Public policy has intensified this horror show. The human prey of these vermin also are at the mercy of twin neuroses popular among powerful people far from America’s ghettoes. Chemophobia grips bureaucrats and many environmentalists while pestophilia motivates eco-extremists who wish to tread lightly on pests, if at all.

Former EPA administrator and leading chemophobe Carol Browner said in 1993: “The most important thing is to reduce the overall use of pesticides. By doing that, we will automatically reduce risks, and we won’t have to spend all this time worrying about lots of complicated things.” This breezy attitude culminated in the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act. It requires EPA to reduce exposure to children when re-certifying pesticides. This sounds lovely. But the FQPA often prevents the EPA from weighing pesticides’ hypothetical threats to kids against the real-world harm they now suffer at the claws of pests. EPA’s review of some 9,700 different substances and their applications is so rigorous and so reliant on worst-case scenarios that some chemical companies simply have dropped successful pesticides from their product lines rather than hop through EPA’s hoops.

Allen James of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, a pesticide manufacturer’s organization, complains that the EPA “was pressed by environmental groups to make rapid decisions which resulted in the direct loss of important products that were affordable and readily available for pest control.”

With its 1998 ban of many organophosphates and the ongoing phase-out of Dursban, among other offerings, EPA has driven highly effective compounds from the market. Substitutes may arise, but likely with higher prices and lower potency. Federal registration of a new pesticide can last nine years and cost its manufacturer $50 million.

“The healthy use of pesticides needs to be known much better by public housing authority staffs,” says Kevin Marchman, a former Clinton administration HUD official who now runs a group called “The National Organization of African Americans in Housing.” NOAAH plans to promote sensible pesticide use to improve the quality of life of public housing residents.

Pestophilia also jeopardizes inner-city health. Karen Reardon of Crop Life America, an agricultural pesticide producers’ association, remembers standing behind her home in a tough, densely populated, predominantly black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. A white woman who arrived in her SUV from suburban Virginia was rooting among the Dumpsters in the alley, disabling adjacent rat traps. Asked why, Reardon says the woman replied: “This is not a very humane way to treat rats.”

In an apparent bow to biodiversity, San Francisco — which essentially has banned pesticides on city property (save for limited exemptions) — clearly states that “the object of treatment is to suppress pest populations below their injury level, but not to eradicate them.” The Los Angeles Unified School District’s Integrated Pest Management Policy says that “Pesticides will not be used to control pests for aesthetic reasons alone.” Perhaps the mere presence of pests has a beauty all its own.

To its credit, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals encourages cities to use rodent-resistant Dumpsters and garbage cans. PETA, however, is not crazy about poisoning rats, deeming such methods cruel. Besides, if rats have rights, shouldn’t they simply go about their business? While she does “recognize there is a problem” with rat infestation, ultimately, PETA wildlife biologist Stephanie Boyles admits: “We think they should be left alone.”

Oddly enough, this “I’m OK, they’re OK” attitude toward creepy-crawly creatures is more common to white suburbs than America’s ghettoes where people lack the luxury of such moral relativism. The EPA, local officials and environmentalists should allow residents of low-income, urban, and public housing more than just rolled-up newspapers to defend themselves from the pests that constantly endanger their health.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.


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