New Yorkers are used to seeing rats on the subway, scurrying between discarded soda cans and piles of trash on the platform and expertly avoiding the third rail.
But according to Matt Perzanowski, who studies allergies and asthma in Columbia University’s department of environmental health sciences, we share more than our subway stops with the city’s rats. Even when we can’t see them, they’re making our allergies worse.
It’s pretty clear if you’re seeing rats in the subways, the allergens from those animals are going to get into the air.
Here’s how it works. Rats, mice and cockroaches release tiny particles called allergens in their urine and in their fur.
((sound of train coming from tunnel))
Every time a train car comes shooting out of the subway tunnel, it disrupts the air at the bottom of the tracks, and stirs those allergens up into the air.
You’re gonna pick it up on your clothes, you’re gonna leave it on the subway seat, the next person will take it home or it will be in the air. So exposure to allergens in the public is quite common.
Those allergens lodge into our respiratory tracts and trigger swelling, congestion and—for some—asthma attacks.
And the subway isn’t the only place New Yorkers are breathing in rat urine. According to Perzanowski, allergen levels are high anywhere rats are living, which in New York City is basically everywhere.
((fade in street sound))
A lot of garbage on the corner, there was garbage in the middle of the block and they had rats climbing outside on the walls…
Charles Callaway and I are standing on a street corner in West Harlem. Behind us, there’s a giant, green metal fortress of a trash can. It’s the kind rats can’t get into, and it’s a point of pride for the neighborhood. Because when Callaway— who’s a community organizer with WE ACT for Environmental Justice—got a call about this neighborhood about five years ago, it was overrun with rats.
The rats were out of control. At night you couldn’t come outside! The rats was running around all over.
That’s Valarie Settles, or “Big Val,” the self-proclaimed mayor of 145th street. As she’s telling me about the rats, she pulls over Selena Fields to make her point. Fields lives in the neighborhood too, and a couple of years ago, she says her infestation was so bad the rats were keeping her up at night.
We had rats in the building so bad that you could hear them like this [pattering sound of fingernails] over my headboard. And I mean squeaking so bad, real “Eee! Eee! Eee!” in the baseboards that I ran out of my house.
Aging infrastructure, lax garbage collection and negligent sanitation management all contribute to rat infestations. And low-income communities are especially vulnerable to these conditions. Matt Perzanowski says it’s no coincidence Upper Manhattan communities like this one have some of the highest asthma rates in the country…
And when you think about the reasons why it’s become so common in low-income communities, the environment is clearly part of the story.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says it’s aware of this problem, and it’s trying to combat it. In the last year alone, the city has passed a bill enforcing healthy air quality standards in homes and allocated $32 million in funding to remove garbage from streets where vermin are a problem.
But health experts say climate change poses a new challenge to controlling the city’s rat population. As winters grow warmer, more rats and their young will survive the cold season. And in springtime, they’ll make it harder for New Yorkers to breathe.
Sarah Wyman, Columbia Radio News.