Against a bright orange backdrop, this illustration depicts a white bucket filled with dead animals. At the top of the bucket are a black raccoon and orange songbird with its feet pointing straight up.

Illustration: Harry Campbell

From Audubon Magazine

The Internet Has a Rat Poison Problem

How online sales of highly regulated, super-toxic rodenticides exploit gaps in the law and imperil wildlife.

My shopping spree was born out of boredom. On a lazy July morning I was in bed browsing Amazon when I decided to follow up on a tip I had received. I plugged the word “brodifacoum” into Amazon’s search bar, and a second later my screen filled with what are known as second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides, a class of rat poison so dangerous to humans and wildlife that the Environmental Protection Agency strove to keep them from being sold in consumer stores. After clicking around for a few bewildered minutes, I ordered something called Motomco D 31402 Jaguar Rodenticide Pail Pest Control. It cost $69.99, its delivery was free, and it had a 4.8-star rating. The top customer review said, “Kills them all, but the dead mice smells is not what I need,” which sounded like a solid testimonial. 

To be clear, I never intended to use this product. In fact, I had doubts as to whether the package would actually arrive. But a few days later, a big plastic bucket was waiting on my doorstep. It contained 12 pounds of waxy pink seed-size pellets laced with brodifacoum, a chemical engineered to trigger massive internal bleeding and hemorrhaging when digested, whether by rat, dog, bird, or child. 

Reactions to my purchase among experts familiar with the hazards of these products ranged from shocked to annoyed. “It’s both alarming and surprising,” said Mark Ruder, an epidemiologist at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, who has documented widespread exposure to these rat poisons in eagles across the United States. “It’s definitely concerning,” agreed Andrew Vitz, an ornithologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, which in 2021 recorded the state’s first two cases of Bald Eagles dying from these poisons. Jonathan Evans, a senior attorney and environmental health legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity who has for years been tracking the problem, quipped, “Congratulations on being the owner of a bucket of toxic waste.”

My Amazon order invited plenty of questions, and for good reason. Four chemicals are classified in the United States as second-generation anticoagulants: brodifacoum, bromadiolone, difenacoum, and difethialone. According to the EPA’s rules, companies that register rat poisons containing any of these active ingredients are not allowed to sell or distribute them “in channels of trade likely to result in retail sale in hardware and home improvement stores, grocery stores, convenience stores, drugstores, club stores, big box stores, and other general retailers.”

So, what was Amazon, I wondered? And, for that matter, what was the internet? In attempting to find answers, I soon got lost in a rat’s nest of toxic e-commerce and murky regulations.

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n the weeks after that initial purchase I bought more deadly poisons—lots more—to see how porous the EPA’s restrictions were when it came to online shopping. The products were made by a variety of manufacturers and sold through all types of websites. Over at diypestcontrol.com, I ordered a 16-pound bucket of JT Eaton’s “Nectus”-brand bait. Then I hit eBay, where the offerings were plentiful; I settled on the “Just One Bite” brand made by Farnam. Both products contain bromadiolone. Next up was Walmart, the granddaddy of big box stores, where I ordered Liphatech’s “Fast Draw” with difethialone. I could buy these products from sears.com and kmart.com, and soon enough, websites that I visit regularly for news and information—bostonherald.com, dictionary.com—were serving up banner ads for second-generation anticoagulants. The only limit seemed to be on shipping these products to California, which in 2020 banned their use with a handful of exceptions, such as if a rat infestation posed a threat to public health or water supplies. 

It’s hard to overstate the ubiquity of these products, both online and IRL. The global market for anticoagulant rodenticides is expected to grow from $3.8 billion in 2020 to $5.8 billion by 2027, with the United States accounting for more than one-third of sales, according to market research firm Global Industry Analysts. One reason for this skyward growth is that in recent years rat populations have been surging in cities and expanding into suburbs, and there are reports that the pandemic has only made matters worse. Wherever rats go, they threaten outbreaks of extremely unpleasant human illnesses, including scrub typhus, salmonellosis, and leptospirosis. The poisons are also increasingly deployed in the agricultural sector, where rodent urine and feces spoil an estimated 20 percent of the world’s food supply. Perhaps the biggest factor behind the success of second-generation anticoagulants is the simple fact that they are really good at killing rats. 

Just one night of eating the bait is usually enough to deliver a fatal dose, but the actual process of a rat bleeding out may take upward of five days. For a hawk or an owl or any other predator that regularly eats rodents, this can spell trouble; once consumed, the chemicals can stay lodged in animal tissue for months—posing an ecological menace. 

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The chemicals can stay lodged in animal tissue for months—posing an ecological menace. 

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“What makes these particular rodenticides such a concern is the fact that they have these long half-lives…and so they can accumulate in the food chain,” says Maureen Murray, director of Tufts Wildlife Clinic, who has been studying these chemicals since 2006. In that time, the problem appears to have gotten worse, and more and more birds are turning up with multiple second-generation anticoagulants in their system. The first Bald Eagle to die from rodenticides in Massachusetts, for instance, had three of the four chemicals in its liver. 

Last year Murray reported that 100 percent of 43 Red-tailed Hawk carcasses she examined had traces of second-generation rodenticides. That followed her 2017 study in which 96 percent of 94 hawks and owls tested positive for the poisons. Murray was quick to note that evidence of exposure does not necessarily translate to cause of death. There are instances in which it is clear a bird died directly from “acute rodenticide toxicosis”: The blood isn’t able to clot, so bruising occurs throughout the body, and the lungs can fill with blood. Other complications can include lethargy, immobility, loss of appetite, and small wounds that won’t stop bleeding. While these may not be enough to directly kill a bird, they may blunt its survival skills. Take Barry, the cherished Barred Owl of Central Park that was hit by a truck and killed last summer. A necropsy found high levels of bromadiolone in Barry’s body and investigators speculated that the poison could have impaired the owl’s ability to avoid the collision.

Owls, eagles, and hawks aren’t the only unintentional victims. Scavengers such as vultures are especially at risk, and studies have even found the chemicals in songbirds—potentially from eating pelleted baits similar to the stuff I ordered off Amazon. Mountain lions and bobcats in California have dropped dead from exposure to the poison, and studies have identified traces of anticoagulants in hedgehogs in the United Kingdom, otters in South Africa, and horseshoe whip snakes in Spain, among dozens of other animals around the world. 

Given the environmental blowback of these poisons, it made sense that the EPA had penned regulations to limit consumer access. But if my shopping spree and the copious online reviews of these products were any indication, e-commerce had created a loophole big enough to drive an Amazon delivery truck through.

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eople have been questioning the safety of second-generation anticoagulants since they hit the market in the late 1970s. The products were positioned as a faster and better alternative to the first-generation anticoagulants, which mainly consisted of warfarin, the same blood thinner commonly prescribed to humans under the brand name Coumadin. Warfarin certainly kills rodents, but its relatively short half-life means that a rat needs to feed on the bait for several consecutive nights to ingest a lethal dose. Second-generation products promised to deliver enough chemicals to kill in a single night of feeding.

“I saw the transition happening and recommended against second-generation products because they’re so bloody toxic,” says Stephen Frantz, a public health consultant who was a technical advisor for the Federal Urban Rat Control Program when these chemicals were introduced. Frantz points out that while it’s true rats need only a little bit of second-generation bait to die, they’re not known for self-restraint and are likely to snack on bait multiple times over two or three days. When they finally do drop dead, they’re “super-lethal carcasses.” One rat that has had a few meals of brodifacoum is loaded with enough poison to kill an average-size dog, according to Frantz: “The carcass could be practically falling apart and the poison is still active inside the body.”

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“I saw the transition happening and recommended against second-generation products because they’re so bloody toxic.”

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The U.S. pesticides market in the 1980s was a messy place, rife with dangerous products, including deadly strychnine powders. In the late ’80s, the EPA took on the onerous task of imposing order and cleaning house by launching a re-registration process. If a company wanted to keep its product on the market, it needed to undergo a risk-benefit review by the EPA and provide extensive safety and efficacy data to the agency, potentially requiring it to conduct studies. This new level of scrutiny demanded a substantial investment of time and money, and many companies simply stopped making their products. The marketplace of rat poisons shrunk rapidly: In 1985, a few years before the review process began, 750 rodenticide products were registered; by 1994 that number was cut in half. 

While the total number of rat poisons in the marketplace plummeted, the proportion of products that contained second-generation anticoagulants rose. “They were easy to use, they were easy to formulate, they were more toxic,” says John Eisemann, who has written on the regulatory history of rodenticides and is currently the regulatory support services unit manager at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center. Eisemann stressed that the agency wasn’t only assessing the risks of the products, but also the benefits, and it was clear that second-generations had value to municipalities attacking urban infestations and farmers safeguarding crops. But those weren’t the only ways they were being used. 

For years these products were available to pretty much anyone, anywhere. You could buy them off the shelf at Ace Hardware or Home Depot or Walmart. As their prevalence grew, so did concerns over their risks to children, pets, and wildlife. Throughout the 1990s, the American Association of Poison Control Centers received 12,000 to 15,000 reports each year of rodenticide exposure in children under six. In response, the EPA in 1998 announced that it would require manufacturers of certain rat poisons, including second-generation anticoagulants, to add a bittering agent to deter children from eating them. But the very next year, the agency backpedaled—it said it would allow manufacturers to include bittering agents (which don’t seem to make the poisons any less enticing to rodents) on a voluntary basis. 

In response, the Natural Resources Defense Council and West Harlem Environmental Action successfully sued the EPA in 2004, forcing the agency to hatch a new regulatory game plan for a wide range of rodenticides. After several years, the agency in 2008 issued its “Risk Mitigation Decision for Ten Rodenticides,” which laid out its new rules and remains the lodestar of rat poison registration requirements today. 

Many environmentalists hoped the agency would restrict the chemicals so they could be used only by or under the direct supervision of certified pest control operators—or ban them altogether. Instead, the EPA required that they be sold in quantities of eight pounds or more, reasoning that most general consumers wouldn’t want to buy such a large amount and retailers wouldn’t want the bulky buckets to take up precious shelf space. 

Additionally, the EPA imposed the sale and distribution restrictions: Registrants must ensure second-generation anti­coagulants are only “distributed to or sold to agricultural, farm and tractor stores, or directly to [pest control applicators]” and don’t end up in big box stores or other consumer-oriented retailers. 

Things haven’t quite worked out as the EPA envisioned. When I first started browsing Amazon, neither the cost nor the size seemed particularly egregious to me. A single bucket—similar in size to a container of birdseed—seemed sufficient for my small yard. 

In response to a detailed list of questions about my purchases and about online sales in general, the EPA said that it understood its Risk Mitigation Decision “would not completely remove second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides from use by general consumers, as it intended to allow use by persons such as farmers and custodians.” It also said that it was “aware that retail has changed dramatically since 2008,” but it did not say whether it has ever taken any enforcement action against manufacturers or digital retailers. The agency added that it is currently reviewing the registration of these products but gave no timeline for the review process.

Eisemann tells me there is a familiar pattern to regulating pesticides. The development of new technologies always outpaces the scientific understanding of their risks and benefits. As a result, regulators are continually playing catch-up. Even still, he was struck when I told him I had been buying the stuff from Amazon and walmart.com. “It’s probably time for the EPA to certainly take a look at doing enforcement actions,” Eisemann says, “and it’s probably time for them to reevaluate e-commerce.” 

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he idea of restricting access to a hazardous chemical by requiring that it be sold only in large quantities appears to be terribly shortsighted in today’s world, where Amazon warehouses stretch across millions of square feet and fleets of delivery trucks crisscross towns and cities day and night. 

I was eager to hear retailers’ perspective on the issue. After all, it isn’t their responsibility to limit consumer access to second-generation anticoagulants; the EPA’s sales and distribution restrictions place that burden on companies registering pesticides. Unfortunately, few wanted to talk. A spokesperson at Transformco, the parent company of Sears and Kmart, asked that I send a list of questions and some examples of the products that were being sold. A few days later, the company declined to comment, and all of the second-generation anticoagulants had been removed from the websites. Amazon also declined to comment. Walmart did not respond to several requests for comment. A spokesperson for eBay emailed me a link to the company’s pesticide policy and asked for specific examples of what they were selling. She never answered any of my questions, and the link she sent was broken.

Most of the poisons I purchased online came from third-party vendors, so I tried going down that route. The initial order I placed on Amazon, for instance, came from a business called Monster Pets that was under a parent company called B&J Pets and Aquariums. When I called the number I found online for Monster Pets, I ended up talking to a clerk at a pet store in South Philadelphia. I explained I was trying to understand the origins of some rat poison I purchased. The clerk told me that the store didn’t sell rat poison, but the owner had a separate Amazon business that offered all types of products and gave me the number to the warehouse. I left several messages there but did not get a response.

The one person on the retail side who would speak with me was Walt Cline, an owner of diypestcontrol.com. In addition to the website, he has a brick-and-mortar store on the outskirts of Atlanta that he and his family have operated since 1982. All the second-generation anticoagulants he sells are registered with the EPA and adhere to the minimum weight requirements, he said. He described his business as both a wholesaler and a retailer—he has about 4,000 customers who are pest control operators, but he also sells directly to consumers through the storefront and website. 

I asked whether any of the rodenticide manufacturers from whom Cline buys inventory ever question selling the product online. “There’s no conversation at all,” he said. Cline couldn’t say how many general consumers buy second-generation anticoagulants from him in a year, but he did note that they’re not a product he would typically steer an average homeowner toward. He’s well aware of the risks these chemicals pose, and said brodifacoum is the worst of the worst when it comes to nontarget animal exposures. “Brodifacoum is the main product out there that in my opinion should not be available to anybody—not just homeowners, but anybody,” he said. 

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“Brodifacoum is the main product out there that in my opinion should not be available to anybody—not just homeowners, but anybody.”

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In that case, would he ever voluntarily pull brodifacoum products from his shelves? “No,” he said, without hesitation. It’s too competitive a marketplace and “a lot of pest control operators live and die by that.”

And so I pushed upstream to where responsibility actually resided: manufacturers. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t want to discuss the issue with me. I first called Wisconsin-based Motomco, whose label was affixed to the 12-pound bucket of brodifacoum pellets. There I connected with Andy Schoenherr, a senior product manager, who clammed up when I told him I was writing a story about online sales of second-generation anticoagulants. He said he needed to check with his regulatory department and requested I email him. I agreed, sent him over a list of questions, and never heard from him again, despite several follow-up calls and emails.

I tried other manufacturers. I was particularly keen on speaking with JT Eaton, an Ohio-based company that made the 16-pound bucket of bromadiolone-based bait I’d purchased. The company had an official Amazon account, through which it had answered numerous customer questions over the years about second-generation products, such as, “Does the bait need to be removed from pouches?” and “What does that date on the tub label represent?” These didn’t strike me as the type of questions pest control operators or agricultural applicators, or custodians for that matter, would ask, so I wanted to know if the company thought it was sufficiently controlling distribution per the EPA’s guidelines. A woman named Cindy in the sales department wanted to loop in someone else on the sales team and asked me to email questions, but no one responded to any of them. 

After reaching out unsuccessfully to several other companies, I connected over email with Katie Swift, who works for the pesticide company Liphatech and identified herself as chairperson of something called the Anticoagulant Rodenticide Task Force. She provided a statement focused on the EPA’s weight requirements, but did not mention anything about the agency’s sales and distribution requirements. I asked a series of clarifying questions on that topic and never heard from her again. 

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f I’m honest, there have been moments when I wanted to crack open a bucket of poison and dump it all over my yard, birds be damned. Boston is consistently ranked as one of the rattiest cities in the country, and my neighborhood is no exception. They scamper up my driveway, burrow under the bramble in my neighbor’s yard, and copulate in the overgrown weeds across the street. Rats usually don’t unnerve me, but I hit a breaking point one evening when I opened my grill to get dinner going and found two adult brown rats licking the underside of the grates. We got rid of the crummy old fencing, dilapidated bird coop, dead tree stump, and cracked concrete yard left by the old owner. We made sure our trash was always sealed in rodent-proof bins, and I scraped the grill clean and covered it immediately after every use. But we’re surrounded by restaurants, construction sites, and plenty of absentee landlords, so the rats have continued to flourish all around us. 

“One of the things we need to realize is that people react when they have a problem, and they’re going to do what they think they need to do,” said Galvin Murphy, president of Yankee Pest Control, based near Boston. In the case of rats, he said, that often means deploying the most potent poison they can get their hands on.

Murphy was one of the last people I spoke with for this story and he seemed to understand my desire to nuke the neighborhood’s rodents better than anyone. He’s been fighting this four-legged scourge since the 1980s and is big on the idea of integrated pest management, an approach that emphasizes prevention through better sanitation and infrastructure, public education, and, when needed, snap traps and poisons. The way he told it, pest control experts who are invested in their work and stay on top of industry developments tend to use second-generation anticoagulants as a tool of last resort. There are plenty of settings where he’ll never use them, and in most cases, there are effective alternatives that pose almost no threat to other animals. One tool he’s come to like is a lawnmower-looking apparatus that pumps rat dens full of carbon monoxide and kills them underground. He also noted that dry ice, which suffocates the rats, is effective, too. 

When I told Murphy about my online shopping spree, he cringed and said the idea of ordinary homeowners buying these poisons off Amazon is unsettling but not surprising. Part of his business is to do pest inspections for prospective homebuyers, and he regularly comes across buckets of second-generation anticoagulants in basements or garages or finds chunks of the poison haphazardly tossed around backyards. “That’s not just putting birds at risk, it’s putting pets and children at risk, and it bothers me,” he said. “There’s a reason we don’t sell hand grenades to people.”

After speaking with Murphy, I realized that I didn’t have an exit strategy. I couldn’t just leave four big buckets of toxic poison sitting in my garage indefinitely—something really bad could happen. In fact, while reporting this story, a colleague sent me a disturbing Facebook post from a neighborhood group in Brooklyn. A building’s basement had flooded. While cleaning it out, someone had removed a bucket of second-generation anticoagulants. Left outside, the bucket tipped over, and squirrels soon dispersed bright blue bits and pieces of poison throughout the streets. At least two cats needed medical treatment within a day of the accident, according to the post, and it almost certainly impacted local wildlife. 

Stories like this and Murphy’s anecdotes made me wonder how many pounds of second-generation anticoagulants are stashed in basements and garages across the country. Some products have more than 500 customer ratings on Amazon, and they have been available one way or another for decades at this point. Even if online sales were removed from the equation going forward, there’s likely enough of these poisons already in the hands of consumers to threaten wildlife for years to come if people don’t dispose of them properly. 

Intent on safely offloading my collection, I looked into my city’s free household hazardous waste disposal program—a service offered by many municipalities in the United States. Vithal Deshpande, the environmental program manager for Somerville, explained that it was a straightforward process: I register for one of the designated hazardous waste pickup days; a contractor hired by the city takes the poisons from my doorstep; and the poisons are later put into a 50-gallon drum, along with other pesticides that have been collected. When that drum is filled, it’s sealed up and sent to a disposal site—likely in the Midwest or Canada—where the contents are incinerated. 

Deshpande couldn’t say how much rat poison the city picks up, because it doesn’t track the specific pesticides collected. But he offered up an interesting data point: In 2020, Somerville collected 570 gallons of pesticides from its residents. In the first nine months of 2021, the city had already collected 660 gallons. Why the uptick, I asked? “With COVID,” he said, “everybody was at home and cleaning out their basements.” 

It was all I needed to hear. Soon after speaking with Deshpande, I went online and figured out how to register for a pickup day in a few minutes. It was almost as easy as ordering all this poison in the first place.

This story originally ran in the Winter 2021 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.

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