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As rat sightings rise in Newton, officials stress prevention

Some city officials are sounding an alarm about an increase in rat sightings in Newton, particularly on the north side of the city, pointing to possible health risks for residents, visitors, and businesses.

“This is a public health crisis,” said City Councilor Tarik Lucas, speaking at the Newtonville Area Council meeting June 10 about a spike in rat sightings. It was one of many topics discussed under “burning issues” on the agenda.

Linda Walsh, deputy commissioner of the Newton’s Health and Human Services Department, said the way residents have spent more time at home during the pandemic has played a role in the trend of more reports of rat sightings.

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“We have definitely seen an increase in the numbers,” Walsh said in an interview.

Reports of rat sightings increased 52 percent during the pandemic — from 105 reports filed in 2019 to 160 in 2020, according to data Walsh provided. Through June 16 of this year, the data shows the city has received 57 reports of rat sightings.

Walsh said prevention measures were the department’s “number one” priority to combat rodent infestation. She said the department of Health and Human services works with Newton neighborhoods to stop rodents from invading residential areas.

“You don’t want to make your house and your yard attractive to them,” she said.

The department advises residents to cut back brush, clean out bird feeders, and cover compost piles and water sources.

Walsh described how in cases of noncompliance, the department can issue an order letter to incentivize residents to abide by their suggestions.

“We want to work with everybody,” Walsh said.

Sean Greenhow, who has worked in the pest control industry for 25 years and is chief executive officer and founder of Auburndale-based GreenHow Pest Control, said rats can create serious health concerns as well as psychological impacts.

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“You have an animal that lives in filth and that likes sharing your table,” he said. “It’s a big health risk.”

In an interview, Lucas pointed to construction and development in Newton as one possible cause for the increase in rats.

In an emailed statement, Walsh said the city “takes the issue of rats seriously.”

“We have learned that discouraging rats from living in our City is most successful as a community effort,” she said in the statement.

Walsh said “the Public Buildings Department assesses city owned buildings for pest issues, taking appropriate pest control steps as needed.”

For construction projects, the statement said, the city has a “special permit process that goes through the City Council,” which “can attach special conditions such as rodent remediation.”

Greenhow said he advocates for a method called Integrated Pest Management, which includes techniques such as managing trash and access to water and putting fertility control in baits.

“There is not going to be one thing that is going to solve the rat problem at a facility, or a site or development,” he said. “It would be really about having a cultural shift in how the city and the businesses work together to control and deal with rats.”

Ania Keenan and Sebastian Jaramillo can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.