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Rats! How many million are in the city?

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore might benefit from a rat census, says a City Council resolution introduced last night by Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake.

Three million of the reviled rodents could be burrowing in the city, but nobody knows, in part because no proper count has been done for 50 years, she said.

"It never hurts for us to have updated information," she said at yesterday's weekly City Council lunch, held at the Wheelabrator Baltimore waste-to-energy complex near Westport, a plant that receives more than 21,000 tons of garbage daily.

She wants health workers to brief the council on efforts to bring down the city's rat population. The resolution is part of a package of quality-of-life legislation sponsored by Rawlings-Blake, which also includes stiffer penalties on illegal dumping and a new clause in city contracts that could withhold payments to companies that dump illegally.

Another resolution introduced last night urges the city to enforce an existing rule that established a buffer of at least 300 feet between liquor stores and churchs or schools.

But the topic that arises regularly on neighborhood walks is rats. Residents, Rawlings-Blake said, delight in showing her rat holes and vacant houses where rats congregate: "It comes with the job."

Rats reproduce prolifically, can squeeze through a opening as small as a half-inch in diameter and can jump 3 feet, according to her resolution. Last year, the city received about 10,000 rat complaints, according to Health Department figures. City workers went on more than 26,000 additional rat-related calls - for a total of about 100 a day.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said yesterday that his department's rat philosophy relies on keeping food off the streets. He said he works closely with the sanitation agency to be sure workers clean rat-infested areas before his people set traps. "Trash is the critical element of rat control," Sharfstein said.

The strategy appears to work fairly well, based on an analysis of nonemergency 311 calls, but the overall effectiveness of the rat program is difficult to measure because it is impossible to know how many residents are not calling, said Gregory E. Glass, a researcher with the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, who is evaluating the city's rat program.

A full-fledged rat census could be prohibitively expensive because it would require training many data-gatherers, Glass said. But he suggested a similar idea he calls rat surveillance.

City sanitation workers, he said, could be outfitted with GPS devices that would allow them, at the touch of a button, to record where they see rats or burrows, creating a comprehensive view of the rat problem.

He acknowledged that, with a tight budget, the city might not be willing to go along with that plan and noted that asking sanitation workers to take on additional tasks might be unpopular.

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