Rodent forum, May 2023 / Jake Bentzinger photoResidents discuss the rodent problem at May forum. / Jake Bentzinger photosArlingtonians made their voices heard clearly at the "rodent forum" held recently.

They urged the town’s Health Department to step up community outreach efforts and to work with residents to address public health issues caused by rodent control efforts.

According to the town website, “In 2014, The Arlington Health Department began noticing an increase in rodent activity across town. This trend was [also] seen in other areas of the United States, particularly in urban areas.” 

In the most recent six years (2017 through 2022), the Health Department completed an average of 225 rodent inspections per year, health officials said in response to a YourArlington inquiry.

Before the town's ability to respond to reports of rodent activity was impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of inspections had risen from 198 in 2017 to 319 in 2019 -- an increase of more than half in just two years.

The causes of the rodent problem are numerous, per the website. “The rise in rodent activity can be attributed to a number of factors. Repeated mild winters have contributed to the longevity and rapid increase of the rodent population; aging infrastructure provides additional harborage, or safe living spaces, for rodent populations; and improper trash and waste management practices provide [rodents with] easy access to regular food and water.”

During the roughly 90-minute meeting that brought more than two dozen people to Town Hall on May 18, officials and attendees discussed obstacles and solutions to rodent control. The Health Department intends to post online a summary of the suggestions in June and to produce a more formal report later.

 Public Health Director Natasha Waden addressed the forum held May 18.Issues brought up at the forum included how to get information out to both private citizens and pest control companies about the public health risks posed by continued use of second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides, or SGARs.

SGARs: a threat to avian wildlife

SGARs is an umbrella term for a class of poison developed during the 1970s. SGARs are much more concentrated and toxic than first-generation anticoagulants and specifically designed to be effective against rodent populations that had become resistant to pesticides used in the past.

However, according to the EPA, negative effects on unintended targets, such as birds of prey that feed on rodents, are much more common when SGARs are used, which is why they are now used only by licensed pest control companies and are not registered for consumer-grade products.

Secondhand SGAR poisoning is thought to be cause of death of "MK," a female bald eagle that had nested in Arlington, which led to a 300-strong protest March 2 outside Arlington Town Hall urging a statewide ban.

“The conversations I heard were very lively. People were very engaged.” 
-- Rachel Freed of Consensus Building InstituteSome urged natural approaches to rodent control.    

In 2022, the town tried to pass an amendment to town bylaws that promised to phase out use of SGARs completely by 2024 as well as to require pest control companies to notify the Health Department of when and where they would be used. However, the phase-out strategy was rejected due to legal concerns; in a memorandum to the Arlington Select Board dated March 24, 2022, the town’s legal department explained that pesticide use by private citizens and companies was regulated by state law and thus outside of the town’s control.

As Public Health Director Natasha Waden said at the forum, the town has filed with the state government for special home-rule legislation to allow the town to regulate private SGAR use. A hearing on whether to grant home-rule authority had been scheduled for May 10 but was later pushed to October, stalling progress on a town-wide ban

While SGAR use on town property and public spaces has been banned since Jan. 4, the town remains unable to ban use on private property, prompting a strategy of education and community outreach to tackle the issue. This, as outlined in the forum, relies on Integrated Pest Management, a set of guidelines that emphasizes improving sanitation and rodent-proofing properties, with chemical solutions a last resort.

 Roundtable discussions generate many ideas

After a brief presentation from Waden, officials held small-group roundtable discussions inviting residents to share questions, concerns and suggestions. People wrote these onto dozens of sticky notes, which were collected and posted on the walls of the meeting space.

Health Department officials sought to determine how to effectively communicate with residents, such as through their website, via paper methods such as flyers or otherwise.

“The way we’re communicating doesn’t feel like we’re getting to people,” Waden said in one group discussion. “How do we reach them?”

“This is a community-wide issue that requires a community-wide response. By leading by example, we can work together to educate the community on more environmentally friendly solutions to regulate rodent activity.”
 -- Public Health Director Natasha Waden

Suggestions largely focused on specific avenues for community outreach, including education at schools and coordinating with Parks and Recreation, as well as increasing town enforcement efforts by possibly creating specific public positions to tackle the problem, such as a “rat czar.”

 During the event, the Health Department also distributed informational flyers, lawn signs and car stickers as part of the campaign to raise awareness of the issue.

 Attendees submitted close to 100 ideas on addressing the issues discussed.The conversations I heard were very lively,” said Rachel Freed, a senior consultant at Cambridge’s Consensus Building Institute, who served as a facilitator for the forum. “People were very engaged."

Summary, report expected in coming weeks

 After the group discussions concluded, Waden said that the Health Department would compile all of the suggestions into a report that would examine their feasibility, efficacy and potential cost to the town. Meanwhile, she expects to have a summary of suggestions posted to the Health Department website within the next two weeks.

She expressed optimism after the meeting, stating that she was impressed by the volume of suggestions the community had provided.

“This is a community-wide issue that requires a community- wide response,” Waden said.

“By leading by example, we can work together to educate the community on more environmentally friendly solutions to regulate rodent activity.”

ACMi reports about the forum:


Feb. 19, 2023: Demonstration at local store targets rat poison use


This news feature with photographs by YourArlington freelance writer Jake Bentzinger was published Saturday, May 27, 2023.