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Rats running amok through Boston; residents, councilors demand action

Bob Williams talks about rats

Union Park's Williams: Enough with the wire-harness-chomping, backyard-destroying rats.

The rat barrage that grew worse with the pandemic hasn't eased and now residents are having to deal with cars sustaining thousands of dollars of damage from rats chewing through wiring and asphalt surfaces collapsing from all the rat burrows under them on top of all general grossness of seeing rat families having giant family reunions in people's yards and in local parks.

"I actually hit a rat on M Street," Luanne O'Connor, president of the City Point Neighborhood Association in South Boston, said at a city-council rat hearing today. "I ran over it while I was looking for a parking space, for two hours, so I didn't feel bad for him."

In the South End, the Union Park Neighborhood Association has formed its own rat committee, but that comes too late for one resident, driven so mad by the rats that he spent $25,000 completely replacing his backyard and garden with a completely "hardscaped" granite-edge surface and that still didn't work, so he gave up and is now looking to move out of Boston altogether, the association's Bob Williams told councilors.

Rat management in Boston is currently a melange of efforts by several different departments, including different parts of ISD, Public Works, and even the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. John Ulrich, ISD's assistant commissioner of environmental services for ISD, told the councilors he's as close to a "rat czar" as the city has, overseeing a team of 13 inspectors licensed to do pest control. A 14th should be hired, soon, he said. That would still be one fewer inspector than the city had in 2020, the last time councilors had a hearing on the issue.

Controlling, if not eradicating, rats, takes more than putting out baited rat traps in problem areas and in sewers - and it's ISD's code-enforcement division that writes the citations for improper trash storage that go to landlords and homeowners.

Ulrich said rats thrive when they have access to food, for example, scraps from restaurants or ripped open trash bags, water, from clogged storm drains, and shelter - anywhere they can dig burrows, which is almost anywhere. Controlling those, he said, means a concerted effort by both the city and residents.

Ulrich added the city had to stop using one useful tool against rats - dumping dry ice in rat burrows, which would boil off into carbon dioxide that would suffocate rats - after some company got an EPA permit for using dry ice against rats and the federal government decided that meant licensed pest inspectors could only use that company's dry ice, and it's no longer available in Massachusetts. The city did go out and buy a couple of gizmos that generate a stream of carbon monoxide that is pumped into rat burrows to kill them, he said.

But he and other officials said the city is now working on a Chinatown garbage pilot to come up with ways to control rats, in particular in denser Boston Proper neighborhoods where residents have no room for trash barrels and where restaurants are sometimes less than fastidious about their dumpsters. One idea might be a sort of community dumpster for a given street that businesses could use to deposit their refuse for city pickup.

He added that educating residents on what they can do to keep rats from getting into trash is vital as well.

The plan can't come soon enough for City Councilor Ed Flynn, who represents Chinatown and who said that, even with a bad leg, when he saw a contractor just toss some trash on Tyler Street near Tai Tung Village, he started to run after the guy's truck, to at least get his license plate number. Given how crowded Chinatown is, he said, he was able to stay close to the truck all the way down Tyler and then Beach, before the guy finally shook him off by driving into the Theater District.

After Ulrich told councilors that his team currently works basically weekday business hours, Flynn - who pushed for an increase in the city's anti-rat budget - said that wasn't good enough, because Fridays and weekends are prime problem days and 311 calls about rats can't really wait until Monday. Separately, ISD's code-enforcement division expects to hire new staff within two weeks that will let it respond to complaints 24 hours a day.

At-large Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who lives in Hyde Park near the Mattapan line, said she's particularly tired of complaints seeming to be ignored in those two neighborhoods. She pointed to one notorious set of dumpsters on Tennis Road in Mattapan that have long gone uncovered - and which she said sit in front of people's homes.

"That would not fly in most neighborhoods," she said. Ulrich agreed, said he knew exactly which property she was talking about and said part of the problem is that the landlord has been battling with the city in court over the issue.

City Councilor Kenzie Bok, whose district (Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Fenway, Mission Hill) is full of people who would have no place to put trash barrels, said that now that the city has started a pilot compost program, the BPDA needs to make garbage disposal a formal part of its approval project for large buildings - the city should make developers show how they're going to handle composting and rat control.

City Councilor Liz Breadon, whose district includes large numbers of absentee landlords and towers run by management companies, and which is full of rat-burrow-disturbing large construction projects at present, questioned why the city didn't seem to be doing as good a job at rat control now as it did 30 years ago, when it gained national attention for a program to deal with what was supposed to be a flood of rats unleashed by construction of the Big Dig.

She added the city needs to do more to make large landlords do their part, to put "more pressure on the bad actors who need to improve."

"I don't want to be coming back here next year and having the same conversation," she said.

Some of her constituents have started organzing their own anti-rat effort.

One official said the city has not put a lien on any properties due to trash issues since 2016, due to confusion between code inspectors and the city assessors over who owned property that would have liens put on it. Bok said that's an IT issue that should be solvable.

The officials of the two neighborhood associations agreed something needs to be done - and not just repeating what the city has done over the past couple of years, which Williams called the definition of insanity.

He said rats love the soy-based plastics that many car manufacturers now use for wiring harnesses. He said one resident had to pay $9,000 for damage done by hungry rats, and that he knows of other residents who have faced bills of between $800 and $2,000 due to rat diners.

O'Connor suggested that for people who live in triple deckers, the city should consider handing out smaller hard-plastic containers - the size of the old recycling bins the city used before it went to wheeled large containers for trash, which she said would be ideal for seniors and Millennials, to give rats fewer plastic trash bags to chew throught.

But in the meantime, O'Connor reported that, in addition to flattening a rat on M Street, the other night she saw "a frenzy" of a half dozen rats in her neighbors yard. And she recounted what happened when neighbors, after trying dry ice, which didn't work, set traps baited with peanut butter - it also snared other, more innocent animals:

"There was a squirrel, that was a casualty of war, there was a bird, that was a casualty of war," she said. "So what are we going to do? We're all God's creatures, but not rats. They've got to go."


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"One idea might be a sort of community dumpster..."

They can stop right there with that nonsense. The minute you put out a "community" anything let alone an easy-access unguarded dumpster, people will come far and wide and dump whatever is it they need to get of right now: household trash, old furniture, construction materials, toxic chemicals, mounds and mounds of used clothing, all the dog poop you can imagine and probably used grease from whatever restaurant is close enough.

One cannot blame the proliferation of rats in the city because of a lack of enforcement or a dry ice shortage without confronting the culture of personal permissibility when it comes to trash disposal.


As long as the city empties and cleans the dumpsters often enough, I don't see a problem with any of that because at least it would go in a dumpster. Right now all that crap goes directly on the ground. And honestly, most of it still would; your premise that people would travel long distances to properly dispose of waste, rather than dumping it wherever they happen to be if there isn't an obvious place to put it within arm's reach, is not confirmed by daily experience.


This is exactly how they handle household waste in European cities - they don't throw it around the street in bags and have trucks amble around multiple times a week in hopes that the rats don't get there first. They use centralized trash receptacles that call for pickup when full (in many places) and it works. It also minimizes the truck traffic needed.

Amsterdam is the most highly developed system, but block bins seem to work in Paris, Barcelona, and other big euro cities.


Just don't put it in front of my house on my block, ok? This is America, not a collective!


I'm gutting a couple of rooms and need a place to dump the plaster.

… your trash and recycling barrels on the sidewalk in front of your house and blocking pedestrians. I’m tired of have to push them into the street.
You can put it in front of my building. My friend in Amsterdam has his in front of his building. It’s about 3 feet high and two feet square. He and those in his building have the shortest distance to walk as opposed to people down the block. Always tidy and of course no parking permitted in front of it so when he steps out the front door, he doesn’t have to find a break between parked cars to cross the street. The trucks that remove the contents of these underground bins are state of the art and super quiet. I’d love this for my neighborhood.


You said:

people will come far and wide and dump whatever is it they need to get of right now: household trash, old furniture, construction materials, toxic chemicals, mounds and mounds of used clothing, all the dog poop you can imagine and probably used grease from whatever restaurant is close enough.

And why would people want to come do that? Let's see

- Their town requires people to pay to throw
- Their town doesn't offer proper facilities to take chemicals, clothes, etc and dispose of them
- Their town just won't take the item (that's a big issue)
- People are jackasses

Look at what often is get throw on dark streets and behind empty buildings. Its usually crap town landfills do not want or charge a premium to get rid of:

Pallets (why oh why is it so hard to get rid of this)
Construction Materials & related trash
Tube Televisions
Broken Appliances
Rubber Tires
Other chemicals

Sure there's standard household garbage, but the vast majority of what people toss in this manner is stuff that is hard to get rid of or towns charge.

So maybe the problem is.. stop charging for this crap and just take all garbage. Then think about how you are going to deal with it. Its going to end up somewhere...

Its time to stop thinking people need to 'pay' for trash.. and make it far easier to dispose of. When you make it easier for people to do, people might actually do it than throw their crap everywhere.

Furthermore, we need to think about trash as a regional issue. We think of human waste (sewer) and waste water as a regional issue.. so we threw it under the MWRA. (ok ok cuz moon island was a shitshow).... so why aren't we thinking trash the same.

Every town has their own trash rules and trash pick up. Different companies are doing it.. sometimes its local DPW people sometimes its a company. Some towns its pay to throw, others will take anything.

This is inefficient and causing issues.. lax towns are a magnet for trash from un-lax towns.

It's time to start to think of trash as a regional issue.


In Germany, televisions have to be returned to the manufacturer for proper recycling and disposal; you don't get to sell TVs without also being on the hook for the rest of the lifecycle. (Same for other big appliances, and maybe other electronics?) This kind of approach is worth considering for some of the things you mention.


that was a point I left out but wanted to make

Business has moved to a format to make things cheaper. We all complain that nothing lasts anymore. Maybe if manufacturers made stuff that lasted longer, we wouldnt be throwing it out so fast.

Long gone are the days of things that would last or were easy to repair. Even still manufacturers aren't making it easy. I had a window AC die after a year (days after the warranty ran out too!), I called to see how much it would cost to have it repaired. 350 bucks. For 50 bucks more I could have had an entirely new AC unit. So I tossed it. The metal picker guy on my street was very happy when I flagged him down to come grab the unit.... all that copper.

But I agree, if manufacturers are going to make cheap products that are meant to be replaced every few years, we need to have some sort of mechanism to deal with that. Either a tax or a return program.. or something.


Big box electronics sellers like Best Buy and Staples have programs where they take used electronics. There are limits to how many you can drop off in a day, and I'm sure some limits on type, but there's no requirement that it be something you've purchased from them. I've dumped old printers, laptops, scanners etc. on Staples and no questions asked.

for both the manufacturer and the consumer (and the vendor).

Construction Materials & related trash

I hate this rule. Bought a new toilet, can't get rid of the old one. Replaced it myself, so no contractor with a truck or a dumpster. Can't even hire a dumpster because my yard is approximately 4 square feet. Don't have a car to haul it to a dump (do we even still have dumps??) I get the city doesn't want the responsibility for big developments but a one-off home improvement project from a homeowner shouldn't be considered in the same pool.

Currently whacking it with a hammer and dropping a pound of ceramic into the normal trash each week.

lots of cities apparently started to use the dry ice method to kill rats in the 2010's, and then had to stop using it because it wasn't on the EPA's insecticidal lists. What the hell? You can use dry ice in the preparation of drinks for human consumption! And then Bell Labs managed (smartly, I guess) to patent the technique of using dry ice to kill rats and they now market something they call "Rat Ice", which is nothing but plain ol' dry ice. AKA simple frozen carbon dioxide. So now you can't just buy regular market dry ice to kill rats with--you can only use Rat Ice from Bell Labs. (Which I'm quite sure they mark up). Personally, I am all for intellectual property and being able to patent original ideas. But for god's sake. That is madness.


Ulrich added the city had to stop using one useful tool against rats - dumping dry ice in rat burrows, which would boil off into carbon dioxide that would suffocate rats - after some company patented the idea of using dry ice against rats and the federal government decided that meant licensed pest inspectors could only use that company's dry ice, and it's no longer available in Massachusetts.

This bit intrigued me, so I went looking... It's not a patent, it's a "federal registration" according to this article:

And the company itself (no, not *that* Bell Laboratories) says "Rat Ice is currently available in limited markets including: Boston":

The situation seems ridiculous, but Ulrich's understanding may also be confused.


Ulrich talked about that. A city worker had to drive to Woburn to get the required paperwork to drive down to a distributor in Rockland to pick up the RatIce (i.e., dry ice, just with a trade name and all). So it was never technically available in Boston, unless you're one of those people who says you're from Boston when you're really from, oh, Rockland. In any case, the Rockland distributor no longer offers the stuff, so, no, it's no longer available here.

As for patents, you might be right: It's more of a trademark issue. And an EPA regulations issue. It was actually one of the councilors who talked about patents, not Ulrich, so I've updated the story.


This whole rat ice thing is bizarre. I would think that having nests full of dead rats under your neighborhoods is not necessarily an improvement, especially if you still have garbage lying around to attract more rats, but maybe that's why I'm not a ratologist.


that cities came up with a way to help deal with a typical city problem with a mostly freely available compound but then were stopped by a government agency until such a time as a trademarked/patented or whatever solution that hit the market became the only thing local governments could use legally (when you could still easily buy the same generic thing off the shelf to do the same job).

I'm generally not a conspiracy guy, but man. That stinks like a dead rat.

Nothing will have changed


The MBTA is doing a great job controlling the rodent population in their stations or are the rats fleeing the unsafe subways.


Thanks for summing-up this hearing, both serious and entertaining. A google street-view of the dumpsters at 70 Tennis Rd in Mattapan speaks volume.

Toward the middle of the article it says “One official said the city has not put a lien on any properties due to trash issues since 2016, due to confusion between code inspectors and the city assessors over who owned property that would have liens put on it. Bok said that's an IT issue that should be solvable.”

If I remember it correctly, it took years but eventually a few years ago the city passed a ruling where unpaid city fines (for unshoveled sidewalk, loose trash etc.) get added to the property’s quarterly real estate tax bill. I am surrounded by absentee landlords and report the issues to 311 often. When I look it up afterward, I'd say property violation tickets get issued for over 75% of my submissions, so that system is working reasonably well. The question is do these tickets get paid and what actually happens when the slumlord doesn’t pay the fine? I doubt that all these sloppy property owners pay their city fines diligently and yet when I've looked up the online tax bill of half a dozen problem-properties near me, I couldn’t see any one of them getting a surcharge for unpaid fines. I am looking for some reassurance that reporting to 311 isn't a waste of time and money (the inspector’s salary). What happens to unpaid property violations would be worth some local investigative reporting.


The rat tickets that ISD issues aren’t the green (or red now, I guess) tickets that DPW gives out, but rather a citation for violating the MA Sanitary Code. They give you a few weeks to clean things up or call an exterminator or whatever and then get an inspector to sign off on it. At least with the times I dealt with the process there was no fine as long as things got fixed before the hearing date.

Allston rats should be able to block any anti-rat measures by using the time honored NIMBY justification of "preserving the neighborhood character".


As I said above with trash.. and I say it about the opiate epidemic.

This is a regional issue. Not just a specific town issue.

Remember the rats don't care where they are, nor do they even know what town they are in. One town can go extremes in rodent control and the neighboring town could do nothing.

So how does that help? It seems a bit counter productive. Yes it would help short term, but the rats will come back.

So it should be a regional issue. The rats are spreading, every so often I see an article (here and others) of further out towns (looking at you Watertown & Waltham) where the rats have started their crap.

IMHO.. the big dig stired them up and in the past 20 years slowly have migrated & replicated outside Boston/Cambridge/Somerville/Charlestown/Chelsea/Quincy... away from the water.

And lack of a regional plan made it worse..

I'd suggest maybe starting up flocks of feral cats, but some of the rats I've seen lately are bigger than cats.....


Most cats won't hunt rats (they have to be caught by their mamas to do it) but terriers are ratters by nature.

Of course, packs of feral terriers might be worse than the rats.


That's fine, we'll just release orangutans into the wild to cull the terrier population.

Wow, that's certainly... a take.



Is useless. South Boston is over run with rats coming from the development of the Edison plant. The City’s response? We are baiting the sewers.
They’re in the streets and yards not the sewers.


"If the pox finds a home in some animal species in North America or Europe—say, squirrels, rats, or prairie dogs—it’ll be all but impossible to eradicate regionally. “Game over,” Lawler said. The pox will be all around us, probably forever, just waiting for opportunities to spread from animals to people. Outbreaks will be frequent and big, just like they are now in West and Central Africa."



The example of squirrels right next to rats in that quote should provide some context. It's not particularly possible to eliminate all species that can be a source of zoonotic disease, we just have to deal with particular problems that may arise.

"We failed to get on top of the monkeypox outbreak and we may have missed the chance to stop the disease becoming endemic—and a permanent threat—in the U.S. and Europe."