Health Department takes over rat project

Baltimore isn't crawling with rats like New York, but the city's problem is critical enough that the Rat Rub Out project will now be handled through the Health Department.

Mayor Martin O'Malley and city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson announced the switch yesterday, which removes the rat program from the Department of Public Works. It makes sense, they say, because rats pose a public health risk.


"Rats are in many ways a preventable condition," Beilenson said. "We can do outreach programs that serve as easy ways to get the word out to folk."

An estimated 3 million rats dwell in the city's sewers, abandoned houses and burrows, Beilenson said. In New York, estimates have reached 44 million.


Beilenson said it's going to take a concerted effort to curb the problem, which is concentrated on the city's east and west sides but not exclusive to those areas.

"This needs to be a personal responsibility by everyday citizens," Beilenson said. "People need to pick up after their dogs, put trash in covered bins, make sure abandoned lots are mowed, not have overgrown ivy and no abandoned appliances that could harbor rats. That's really the key. It's kind of like the mosquito population depends on standing water. Rats depend on food and shelter."

Beilenson said health officials are going to begin monitoring the rat situation every two weeks, checking how quick responses are to 311 calls about the rodents, and whether community outreach programs are "making a difference in reducing the environment that's conducive to rats."

He said the city will map calls to see which areas need the most concentration.

Eva M. Holcombe, president of 2100 Oliver Street Block Club, a neighborhood association, said she has seen large rats scurrying up and down streets in her East Baltimore community.

"It's ice and snow out there now, but as soon as all that melts out of the way, they'll be running all over the place," Holcombe said. "They're big, fat ones."

Holcombe said that in 1998, a few rats got inside her car's hood and gnawed wiring.

"I wrote the city and told them what happened and that I wished they'd do something about the rats," Holcombe said. "They never answered me, but about a year later a man did put a sign up on one of the poles out here that he was going to do something about the rats. He came up, dug holes and put something down in there, and it did help for a while."


She said she is glad the Health Department is going to take over the program. "We've got a lot of children in the block. The [rats] bring disease and germs," Holcombe said.

Beilenson said most city residents aren't aware that rats carry leptospirosis, a disease caused by an infection with flulike symptoms. "It can cause problems ranging from mild respiratory illnesses to liver and kidney failure," Beilenson said. "Twenty percent of the kids in some city areas that are most heavily populated by rats have antibodies to the bacteria, which means they've been exposed."

Beilenson also said that although it hasn't been proven to be transmitted from rats to humans, there is a possible SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, case in China where that may have been the case.