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Cold comfort: Boston to resume use of dry ice against teeming rat hordes

Rat Day poster

In 1917, the Women's Municipal League offered bounties for rats. More info.

The city's top rat official told city councilors today that ISD's rat team will soon resume use of dry ice to kill rats - and just in time, what with growing rat complaints coming in from all parts of the city.

Leo Boucher, assistant ISD commissioner, who oversees 15 city rat-control specialists says dry ice had proven very efficient and safe in killing rats in earlier experiments in which the dry-ice pellets were placed in rat burrows, where it then created clouds of carbon dioxide that suffocated the rats inside before dissipating into the air, leaving behind nothing harmful that could hurt pets or young children, unlike more traditional pesticides. But the EPA banned its use after somebody complained it didn't have federal registration as a pesticide.

At a City Council hearing today, Boucher said that issue has been taken care of, if somewhat awkwardly. A Wisconsin company called Bell Laboratories, which has nothing to do with the former storied AT&T electronics research facility, is the only company federally licensed to distribute dry ice as a rodenticide, under the name Rat Ice.

Boucher said an ISD employee who lives near Woburn will pick up Rat Ice stickers from a distributor there, so that he or another employee can then drive to a dry-ice company in Rockland to pick up the pellets, the containers for which the employee will then place the stickers, before driving them back to Boston for use in the war on rats.

Boucher blamed "a perfect storm" this past spring for Boston's seeming rat explosion: A mild winter followed by the Covid-19 shutdown of the restaurants that normally provide the dumpster buffets just as rats were ready to forage during their breeding season.

Couple that with Covid-19 spurred explosion of people eating at home, and tossing the half-eaten food that rats just yum up and the result was an expansion of rat territory as opportunistic rats quickly spread out through new residential areas in search of what constitutes gourmet food for them.

"Rodents don't need filet mignon, they don't need spring water," they are quite content with pizza crusts and other tossed food, Boucher said.

Boucher acknowledged that, yes, in their frenzied migratory quest for food, Boston rats have become more aggressive than usual. But he tried to soothe freaked-out residents, at least a bit: "They are more aggressive towards each other," and not towards people.

The news that the city will soon have a new weapon in its anti-rat arsenal comes not soon enough for councilors and residents of neighborhoods from Chinatown to downtown to Allston/Brighton.

"It's a very distressing situation," said Allston/Brighton Councilor Liz Breadon, who said the burst of rattiness in recent months has only worsened her neighborhood's already longstanding monicker as "Rat City."

Boucher said that when not CO2-bombing rat burrows, his team will be busy on a public-education campaign, armed with lots of fliers to try to convince residents to be more careful with food bits and to use 311 to report any open dumpsters or ripped-open trash bags they see. Worst case, well, ISD Commissioner Dion Irish said, the city currently has court actions against 15 people or companies for intractable trash problems.

Residents of some areas, such as Chinatown, said that even if people want to be careful with putting out trash, they might have problems because there's simply no room in their living spaces or on the street for garbage cans.

City Councilor Ed Flynn (South Boston, South End, Chinatown, downtown) specifically fingered young people "eating pizza and spuckies and all sorts of foods" and then just tossing the remains wherever. Councilor Kenzie Bok (Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Fenway, Mission Hill) said she is tired of people coming into her district with trash that they just dispose there.

Bok and Council President Kim Janey (Roxbury) said they have gotten numerous complaints from residents about the way the city pushed back the start of trash collection from 7 a.m. to 6 a.m., which they said makes it harder for many residents in the more densely populated parts of their districts, where trash cans are impossible, to only bring their trash outside in the morning, rather than putting it out at night.

Edward Hsieh of Chinatown's Asian-American Civic Association, suggested the city change its zoning codes for Chinatown to require new buildings to include some sort of communal space where local restaurants and other businesses could store their trash between pickups; currently, the neighborhood's narrow streets are lined on trash day with bins and bags. Flynn said the city should look into "collapsible bins" that could be stowed away after they're emptied of trash,

Anthony D'Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association, said developers should be required to develop rodent-control plans for their buildings and made to stick with them - in part by making them require their properties have no infestations when they go before city boards for permission to put up new buildings.

ISD, he said, also needs to do more to crack down on landlords in a neighborhood where so many people rent and so don't have the same compunction about doing their part to stave off the rats as homeowners.

Pointing to the potential health risks of rat droppings, he said ISD needs to act quickly. "Let's not give our residents another reason to permanently leave our city," he said.

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Comments

Obviously a few got away in 1917, so these rats can annoy us in 2020.

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So sure, dry ice will suffocate rats in their tunnels. But then you have a mass of decaying rat carcasses. Which provides more food for the surviving rats.

Ick.

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You'd have to physically catch the rats (or dig them up after?) and send them to the incinerator if you wanted an alternative.

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I suppose trap/neuter/release wouldn't work as well for rats as it does for feral cats.

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Any chemical that would sterilize rats would be harmful to animals preying on rats. These include pet cats as well as wild birds of prey, coyotes, etc.

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They don't live long enough to create much of a difference.

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It's way better to have a suffocated rat than a rat full of a poison that will kill any hawk or dog who eats it.

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Voting closed 42

I'm totally on board with restriction of environmentally harmful pesticides and whatnot, but I can't figure out why the EPA would see a problem here. Dry ice can be dangerous to handle in various ways (risks of burns, explosions, suffocation) and as a euthanasia method there are some risks as well, but those aren't under the EPA's purview. It's not even a global warming contributor, since the CO2 is sourced as a byproduct of other industrial activities.

It's extremely safe *environmentally*, commonly available, and obviously doesn't leave any sort of residue. So what's the deal? Some petty bureaucrat, or something I'm missing from this vantage point?

(Luckily, this is something you can totally DIY.)

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Voting closed 8

AFAIK it wasn't "banned" because the EPA thought it was bad, it was banned because it wasn't approved as a pesticide for use in the US, and the laws say that if it isn't approved for that use, then it is unlawful to use it for that purpose. I'm sure there is some burdensome regulatory process to get a pesticide approved but the rules exist to keep people, or businesses, from using whatever they feel like to kill pests, without the harms to people and the environment being weighed against the effectiveness of the pesticide.

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When the Yellowjackets were swarming around my front door, and I sprayed them with WD-40 because I didn't have any wasp spray, I was breaking the law? Lock me up.

WD-40 is a really effective bug killer, BTW.

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WD-40 works for EVERYTHING. I'm never without it.

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The fact that there's one company licensed to use CO2 as a pesticide probably explains why it's banned for everyone else. Rent-seeking at its finest.

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FIFRA-Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide (LOVE THAT WORD!) Act- 7 USC S. 136 (1996) certifies things for use for a particular target pest. Some company went through the trouble to do that, hence the stickers (they must make a little $$ for having gone through the effort).

ISD does require construction projects to have a rodent control plan and a licensed pest mgmt company on board with baiting and trapping going on in advance of any disruption to the site. Look for those black bait boxes or fake rocks with rat poison around any construction site.

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and yet novel plastics are allowed for food packaging, and only banned decades later once the health studies come out.

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I assume the CO2 gas given off by the pellets sinks into the rat warrens underground because it's heavier than air. Why not pump CO2 gas in, saving the energy expended in freezing the stuff?

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I suspect the energy required to compress CO2 into a tank, from which you could discharge it into a burrow, is almost the same as the energy required to turn it into dry ice. I am aware of the thermodynamics associated with phase changes, but I suspect that for this application, the difference is tiny compared to the convenience of staff being able to simply dump CO2 pellets into a burrow and move on, rather than setting up a tank and a hose and waiting while the tank discharged into the burrow.

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There has been an off and on dry ice shortage this past summer. Not sure if there’ll be any impact on this plan but I hope they took it into consideration. https://amp.wbur.org/commonhealth/2020/09/04/covid-vaccine-dry-ice-shortage

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Boucher blamed "a perfect storm" this past spring for Boston's seeming rat explosion: A mild winter followed by the Covid-19 shutdown of the restaurants that normally provide the dumpster buffets just as rats were ready to forage during their breeding season.

He forgot to mention the role development undoubtedly played. I don't think it's a coincidence mine and my neighbors' basements had infestation problems right after a massive project started basically in our backyards, well before winter or COVID.

Good on the Allston Civic Association president for calling this out. But I won't hold my breath on the city actually enforcing anything on a worksite...unless they're serving food after 1am or a 19 year old sips a White Claw somewhere on the site.

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Voting closed 26

I'm betting they did a proper property survey so that is wasn't in your actual backyard.

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sigh and sigh...

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I’ve never been able to figure out the image embed thing here, but here’s a visual reference: https://ibb.co/vjqTqXL

Not pictured: The construction dust we just cleaned off our porch and our belongings on said porch. Again. Or the random crap from the site, including excess building materials, that makes its way to our side of the fence. Or the rats that invaded as soon as they started digging out the lot.

I tend to agree with you on most things here, but in this particular ongoing debate you seem to love having with me from out in the burbs, I can safely say you don’t know %#*^ about %#*^.

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Since pickup is now at 6, more people put trash out in North End overnight.
The change to 6 am pickup occurred in complete contrast to the efforts of the neighborhood which had a public campaign for residents to put trash out in the morning. The neighborhood pushed for 8am pickup, and to limit the window to 2 -3 hours of trash on the sidewalk on trash day, rather than the 11 hour 5pm-6am window now.
Most People are not going to get up before 6 to put trash out. Before 8, most could make it.

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??? The trash is already out per se, just not at the curb.

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A theory behind the initial Black Plague of the 14th century is that earthquakes in the region of the Black Sea pushed rats out of their lairs. This pushed them into a city which resulted in their boarding ships. The ships traveled to Italy and beyond. Rats exited the ships and from them the fleas on the rats hopped to people and the rest is history.

So the idea of rats being disturbed by changes to the Earth, including excavations is very much a real problem and needs to be acknowledged.

This can send rats long distances from their former homes as they look for a new home.

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Rats traveled on ships ever since food was put on ships. earthquakes cause a lot of strange animal behavior but it makes no sense to believe that earthquakes are significant cause of world wide rat expansion. We bring rats every we go.

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Wait, ISD actually solves problems, rather than just punishing the public?

What's with the Rat Ice sticker scheme? How does getting a sticker from one business and putting it on containers of dry ice from another business meet the requirement to use a registered pesticide? I would think the ice would have to come from the official distributor.

Of course the more sensible arrangement would be forgetting the whole bureaucracy and allowing any dry ice with no sticker or registration.

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Simple, it's the state making sure the rent-seekers get paid their due. Nothing more.

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Edward Hsieh of Chinatown's Asian-American Civic Association, suggested the city change its zoning codes for Chinatown to require new buildings to include some sort of communal space where local restaurants and other businesses could store their trash between pickups;

Yeah this is what most european cities and it works well. Tbh if we moved to this, we could have daily trash pick ups. Rather than drive to each location, trash trucks would only need to service one location.

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A month ago or so after one of the rats that burrowed into the garden in front of the South End townhouse I live in and manage ran across my foot as I was walking by out front, I went over to Acme Dry Ice in Cambridge and got a box of dry ice pellets, went home and filled three or four burrows with the pellets and covered them with soil. No more rats. I gave the excess to my neighbors to do the same in their gardens and the street has been mostly rat free since. The CO2 gas it creates more or less puts them to sleep, so it's much much more humane than poison, and even more humane than the electric traps that electrocute them in seconds that I had used in the past. It works like a charm

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Sounds like something out of a Wile E Coyote cartoon.

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The CO2 gas it creates more or less puts them to sleep, so it's much much more humane than poison

CO2 is poison. It's directly toxic, in a way similar, but not identical to CO. Conventional wisdom is that people die from excess CO2 by Oxygen deprivation, but the truth is that if you're breathing 5% CO2, even if the other 95% is oxygen, you're going to die.

Toxic levels of carbon dioxide: at levels above 5%, concentration CO2 is directly toxic.

It may be more humane than the usual rat poisons like warfarin (I'm not so sure; the symptoms are pretty unpleasant), but it's still poison.

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Voting closed 19

Traditional rodenticides are awful for wildlife, especially birds of prey. If you use them, you are killing bald eagles and hate America.

(Sorry, I just stumbled on a recent clip of Tucker and some of his logic seems to have rubbed off on me.)

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Having had a lungful of CO2 once (when I opened a dry ice storage box), I can say that it's fairly unpleasant--- the immediate response is to cough and choke, followed by a while of gasping for air and feeling badly short of breath.

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that has to be more than 5% of your atmosphere before you succumb to it.

(What % of your lungs have to be filled with water before it chokes you?)

I think you know what people mean.

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I suggest you read this Snopes article,* which includes this:

Death came quickly. One man living just two hours on foot from the lake said, “We heard a noise, just like a gunshot.” He immediately checked on his two young daughters, and found them already dead in their beds.

A total of 1,746 people were smothered in the night, according to the official casualty toll. The deadly cloud covered an area of up to 12 miles around the lake, killing thousands of cattle as well.

A similar incident in 1984 at Lake Monoun, another crater lake in western Cameroon, killed 37 people.

The story also includes accounts of people walking into pockets of CO2 and falling down dead.

I also suggest you look at the symptoms resulting from exposures to levels less than 5%, before you characterize it as a "mild poison." Bob Leponge's experience is not unique, and it's by no means the only way you could be exposed to elevated CO2 levels. For instance, brewery workers have died from it, and Anhauser-Busch was fined by OSHA for failing to protect workers from CO2. Use of CO2 fire-suppression systems comes with some risk.

Not so mild.

* Sorry, I somehow Borked the link to the Snopes article. Fixed now.

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Unless you are going to grab every single rat by the neck and pull its tail to cervically dislocate its spinal cord from its brain, the next most humane way we have to kill rats is CO2 toxicity.

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.

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That's why we should value Mother Nature's gift of balance. Falcons and hawks and coyotes should be welcome Boston residents.

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Raccoons, Skunks and Possums are the native creatures pushed out by Norway rats.

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and breathe on the rats to kill them with covid?

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Won't work. Everyone knows rats, cockroaches and fleas will outlive the human race.

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... think young people today even know what a spuckie is? Much less eat them?

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They are also called subs. I believe the real difference is spuckies are served on crustier rolls. What I didn't know is the Spuckie was named after the crusty roll the sandwich is served on a Spuccadella roll.

Back to the rats. I think a citizen using obscure solutions to their rat problem would not come under EPA purview. It's only when a company or government service uses them that the EPA becomes concerned.

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I think it needs to be brought back to common usage. When there's talk of "preserving our history" it's never about things like this. Which in this case, is something that is interwoven with our history of being a rich city of immigrants.

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Because he looks a little like one.

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I first heard of/ate a Spukie in Roxbury.

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are sorely needed.

As it is, if you don't have one decently close to your home (most of us don't!), you're forced to leave perfectly compostable things all up in your trash, right where the rats and raccoons want them.

It's baffling to me why the city still hasn't expanded this program.

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Somerville desperately needs rat control!!!

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"Ben most people would turn you away
I don't listen to a word they say
They don't see you as I do
I wish they would try to'
I'm sure they'd think again if they had a friend like Ben
A friend like Ben"

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When this story surfaced a couple of years ago, I wondered this: if the practice had been to stick a garden hose down the burrow and turn on the water to flood out the rats, would that have been illegal because water wasn’t registered with the EPA? How is CO2 meaningfully different from water in this regard? Slippery slopes and all that...

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needs a lot of water to do this. It can damage your landscape in other ways. And rats can swim out. This is why only the babies die when it rains.

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