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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Pied Piper of Pennsylvania Avenue

Air Date: Week of

Washington, D.C. has more than its share of rats -- the four-legged kind. Lex Gillespie brings us a profile of the man the federal government calls on to exterminate them.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Through the ages rodents have been a huge problem for people, and no one, it seems, not even Uncle Sam, is immune. In Washington, D.C., there are rats. Lots of rats, scurrying throughout the buildings that belong to the federal government. And when people have had enough, there's one man to call. Lex Gillespie has this profile of the rat-busting Pied Piper of Pennsylvania Avenue.

MAN: Yeah, no, he was saying...

GILLESPIE: One afternoon last winter, during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, an intruder sped across the floor of the White House press room. Broadcaster Tina Stage rushed to the scene.

STAGE: I did see his rat hole, where he had tried to pull a Whopper box through it and it got stuck. But of course everybody here was in an uproar and there were some people who actually laid eyes on him.

GILLESPIE: Rats in government are no laughing matter to entomologist Al Green. He's a veritable Pied Piper who oversees pest abatement in 120 federal buildings in the nation's capital, and he develops policies for the government nationwide. Green's watch in D.C. includes the East and West Wings of the White House.

GREEN: The White House is an old building. It's been renovated many times over the years, and it has a lot of potential subterranean openings in the older parts of its foundation, that rats can use to gain access. In that sense, it's like many of our larger monumental buildings throughout the city, in that they will always be at risk from pest invasion, particularly rat invasion, simply because that's the nature of very old, very large buildings.

GILLESPIE: Green has been repelling pest invasion since 1988, when he joined the General Services Administration, which manages most of the federal buildings in Washington.

(An elevator rings; footfalls)

GILLESPIE: Green's chief nemesis among rodents is the Norway, or brown rat, said to be the most common rat in the world. A creature ubiquitous in Washington, D.C., it reproduces in a mere seven weeks. Roaches, pigeons, and fruit flies are also on his most wanted list. He took on all these opponents in a new way.

GREEN: Pest control is not some guy with a spray can spraying along the corridors for cockroaches or putting out some rodent bait boxes at the loading dock.

GILLESPIE: Instead, Green espouses a less toxic alternative. A decade ago, he says most federal agencies tried the "spray and pray way." The General Services Administration once used 600 gallons of potentially hazardous sprays each year in its properties in Washington, D.C. The two principle sprays were Dursban and synthetic pyrethroids, which are similar to over-the-counter bug sprays. They can be eye irritants and also cause allergies. Jay Feldman, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, says Al Green's approach works.

FELDMAN: He's actually been a pioneer in this arena since the early 90s, and has effectively incorporated practices and educational tools that have significantly reduced and almost eliminated pesticides in the management of some 30 million square feet of federal office building space.

GILLESPIE: The General Services Administration, according to Green, now uses less than two percent of the pesticides it once did. Since government pest control policies make no provisions for children or pregnant women, who may be at a greater health risk from potential toxins, Green says the best approach is not to spray any areas at all. Instead, his key to controlling pests is eliminating their food supply.

(A door bangs shut. A buzzer goes off)

GILLESPIE: To fight rats and pigeons, Green champions the use of self-contained, pest-resistant trash compactors, such as the huge one behind his office near Capitol Hill.

(Buzzer and banging continue)

GILLESPIE: Another weapon in the war on rodents is architectural.

GREEN: Basically, when you are a building owner and operator, you
must have a fortress mentality when it comes to rats.

GILLESPIE: Green says this means adding such basics as smaller grates on windows.

GREEN: Your standard rule of thumb for rat-proofing is one-half inch. Amazing as that may seem, young rats can squeeze through a half-inch opening, which is about the size of a quarter.

GILLESPIE: Many government agencies maintain on-site daycare centers. So to protect children from rodents, Green advocates redesigning playgrounds with thick fences, no nearby trash receptacles, and the use of synthetic play surfaces rather than materials rats can burrow in. But perhaps the best defense against pests is proper sanitation.

FELDMAN: Al will tell you that one of his greatest tools is a backpack vacuum cleaner.

GILLESPIE: Jay Feldman of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides.

FELDMAN: And that's because he will get under people's desks, behind their stacks of paper, in their telephones, and find crumbs, and sources of food that have been generated by his client. And so, in that context, his educating the consumer on what role they play in creating a breeding ground for pests, and what changes they need to adopt in their own daily lives, such as not eating at your desk, not throwing your food trash in a wastepaper basket that doesn't have a lid on top of it.

GILLESPIE: The General Services Administration also uses a nontoxic approach to control pigeons and fruit flies, and cutting off their food supply is also the preferred method. Fruit flies, for example, can breed in a soda can recycling bin. Proper cleaning and emptying of the bins are now part of custodial contracts. The approach has paid off. Over the last decade, federal workers' pest complaints to Green's agency have declined by as much as 80 percent. Today, most of the federal government now uses some variation of integrated pest management. But this nontoxic approach is not always implemented in the millions of square feet of office space the government leases. At the General Services Administration, however, Green's approach has been put in place as official policy. Still, he realizes that rodents as a species aren't going anywhere.

GREEN: You're never going to kill all the rats. That's impossible. They'll always be with us. Our cities are built over a vast nether world of tunnels and sewers and building foundations that provide home to thousands or even millions of them. They're a force of nature.

GILLESPIE: For Living on Earth, I'm Lex Gillespie in Washington.



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