New Yorkers live alongside common pests like rats, mice, and cockroaches, considering them a part of daily life, or even a source of entertainment (looking at you, pizza rat). But what happens when these furry friends become dangerous, even deadly?
Leptospirosis, a bacterial disease commonly spread by rat urine, has been linked to the death of one person and the infection of at least two others in a neighborhood in the Bronx.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease can be spread by a variety of animals, but rats are almost certainly to blame in this case.
“[The rats] run from underneath your stove, your refrigerator, my apartment is very clean, but it just doesn’t matter. There’s just holes where they find their way in,” Florence Howard, a 43-year-old resident of the building, 750 Grand Concourse, where one of the cases occurred, told CBS News. “Everything I wash, I have to use bleach because they run around rampantly like they’re part of your house.”
According to the Buildings Department (DOB) and Housing Preservation and Development, a rodent infestation isn’t the only hazard occurring at the Bronx residence: There are more than 100 open violations at the building, dating back to 2004. The list includes some 25 open construction code violations—such as unsupported and cracked walls—which could be linked to some of the buildings rat-related issues.
What’s more, on Monday, the DOB “issued two [new] violations after inspectors observed 8 illegal Single Room Occupancies (SROs) located in the sub-cellar of the building,” Andrew Rudansky, deputy press officer for the the NYC Department of Buildings, told The Daily Beast.
When asked for any additional comments about their involvement in the ordeal, a Buildings Department press officer told The Daily Beast that the matter was being handled by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).
According to a press release from the DOHM, the department has “taken immediate measures” along with “sister agencies the Housing Preservation and Development and the Buildings Departments,” to ensure the health and safety of residents by reducing the rat population in the area and is educating tenants about precautions, signs, and treatment.”
As of Thursday, “there are no new updates,” the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s press secretary, Christopher Miller, told The Daily Beast. “We and our sister agencies continue to work with building management and the tenants to address conditions in the building.”
One of the precautions recommended by the department includes issuing the following message to residents: “Protect yourself from contact with their urine: wear rubber gloves (especially if you have any cuts or sores on your hands or arms), boots, masks and some type of eyewear.”
Despite these ramped-up efforts, residents of the building say they have complained about the violations, including boarded up walls and doors many times. “There’s a lack of concern about the building, there’s a lack of concern with the super and the landlord,” Howard told CBS News.
Despite NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett’s claim that the disease is “very rarely spread from person to person,” Leptospirosis bacteria can contaminate water or soil and survive there for weeks or even months—which means that while human-to-human transmission may be low, if there is one infected rat, there may be more to follow.
What’s more, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reports that the other two Leptospirosis cases “occurred in persons who were not residents, but spent significant time on this block,” which means that the bacterial infection isn’t limited to 750 Grand Concourse, or even one block in the Bronx.
In fact, cases of Leptospirosis are not rare in New York City. The Department of Health typically responds to one to three reported cases per year, according to department figures; prior to this cluster, there have been 26 cases since 2006, one of which resulted in death. It’s likely the other cases during the past decade were also caused by rats.
According to the CDC, Leptospirosis can cause a wide array of symptoms, including flu-like symptoms of headache, muscle aches, and chills, as well as more severe symptoms like jaundice, red eyes, and rashes. The symptoms of infection can occur anywhere between two days and four weeks after exposure—which means we may not have seen the end of the Bronx Leptospirosis illness.
If left untreated, the disease may appear to recover before entering a second, far more serious phase. This phase may include kidney or liver failure, or even meningitis—or even death, as in the case of this recent NYC outbreak.
At a meeting Wednesday evening between building residents, the Health Department, and other city officials, tenants claimed the landlord and city health officials had “failed” them and noted that there were still “rats everywhere” in the building.
While some officials admitted their mistakes, the building’s landlord was not as apologetic: “You can call me a good landlord, you can call me a slum landlord, it’s up to you what you want to call me,” said Ved Parkash told ABC Eyewitness News reporter Josh Einiger.
Rats have a pretty bad track record when it comes to cohabiting with humans—and for good reason. While they may be off the hook for causing the Black Death, rats are known to carry filth and disease everywhere they go, and may still be responsible for the half-dozen or so cases that show up in the U.S. each year—the majority of which were bubonic plague. Plague epidemics still crop up in Africa, Asia, and South America.
While mortality rates are far lower than they were back in the 14th century, the plague is still a killer: There were four plague deaths reported in the U.S. in 2015.
Rodents, bed bugs, and roaches are unfortunately a common reality for many living in densely-populated urban areas. While it’s hard to evaluate the actual number of these vermin crawling, sneaking, and scrabbling around urban homes, every two years the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey surveys residents whether they’ve seen (or seen evidence of) some common pests.
As expected, New York City ranks highly in both the roach and rodent count. In fact, according to a Bloomberg analysis, New York was the only city to report double-digits for both varieties of vermin: 16 percent of households reported roaches and 15 percent reported rodents. That means over 1.1 million households saw evidence of cockroaches, mice, or rats in 2015.
So even if this one cluster of New Yorkers infected by Leptospirosis receives medical attention, and no other deaths occur, rat-transmitted disease in NYC isn’t going away anytime soon.