Rural residents are being warned that mouse infestations in parked vehicles pose a serious health hazard.
Manitoba Public Insurance has seen a sharp jump in claims for rodent damage and MPI spokesman Brian Smiley says people need to take extreme care if there’s a chance those rodents were deer mice.
“With deer mice there could be the potential for the hantavirus,” said Smiley. “And, as we know, that could prove fatal if handled incorrectly by a human.”
In October, a middle-aged Winnipeg man died after contracting a hantavirus infection. Provincial health officials said the man had cleaned up mouse droppings at both his cottage on the east side of Lake Winnipeg and his home. It was the fourth known case in the province, and third fatality. The two earlier deaths were in 1999 and 2000, while in 2007 a person survived after being infected by what is also known as hantavirus pulmonary syndrome.
Rodent surveys have found that anywhere from 11 per cent to 50 per cent of deer mice populations are carrying the virus. Humans who contract hantavirus have a 50 per cent chance of survival.
MPI claims for rodent damage, a category that includes mice, rats, squirrels and other small animals have surged in recent years. There were 900 in 2009, but that jumped to 1,500 in 2011. As of Dec. 1, there had been 1,200 claims for 2012.
Smiley said he can’t explain the increase in the number of infestation claims, but a local biologist said there could be a couple of factors.
“It could be attributed to an actual population increase or simply to increased awareness on the part of the public of the dangers associated with rodent nesting materials,” said James Hare, acting head of the University of Manitoba’s department of biological sciences.
Cleaning up these vehicles is a huge undertaking.
“I’ve seen it get pretty bad. To the point where it’s all through the motor, the vents, everything,” said Shawna Snow of Blue Ocean Auto Detailing in Winnipeg. “It’s not something you want to deal with if you can avoid it.”
Because the virus is carried in the saliva, urine and feces of deer mice, Manitoba Health cautions that the risk for infection remains even after the mice are gone.
For that reason, MPI has all vehicles with rodents claims towed to inspection facilities to reduce the possibility of exposure to the virus.
“We don’t want anyone in those cars,” said Smiley.
What happens next depends on the level of infestation and the value of the vehicle.
“If you have a 1999 something or other in somewhat average condition, but with a rather substantial rodent infestation, chances are that vehicle would be totalled off,” he said.
A newer vehicle in good condition would be taken to a centre approved for decontamination, where specialists in protective clothing get rid of the rodents and clean the car top to bottom, often taking much of the body apart before putting it back together.
Blue Ocean Auto Detailing uses an ozone-generating machine, which depletes an area of breathable oxygen in order to kill rodents as well as bacteria and viruses.
But even after running the machine inside a vehicle for 48 hours, it is still steamed, disassembled, washed with hot water and then reassembled.
Those extreme cleanup measures illustrate why it’s important to prevent an infestation, said Smiley, although he concedes that can be a challenge in rural areas.
But people can take some common-sense steps, said Lincoln Poulin of Poulin’s Pest Control.
First off, don’t park or store cars or trucks in an area with a high rodent population.
“In a wooded area, or tall grass, it’s common to have very high rodent pressure,” he said, advising people park vehicles on gravel or pavement.
If you’re parking a vehicle in a barn, whether it’s a grain truck or a classic car, Poulin said it’s important to make the vehicle uninviting to mice by removing any food sources and placing deterrents, like cedar balls or chemical equivalents inside.
“What you can also do in a barn when there is overhead doors, is use wind-up mechanical traps,” he said, noting the traps can be placed along the small gap under the door as well as under the vehicle.
When dealing with mouse droppings, Health Canada urges people to use extreme caution and never sweep or vacuum them. At minimum, you should wear rubber gloves, spray diluted bleach on the droppings, and wipe up the droppings with a paper towel. In a confined space, a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtered respirator is recommended, and care must be taken with disposing of the paper towels and cleaning up afterwards. For more information on how to avoid coming into contact with this virus, go to www.gov.mb.ca/health/publichealth/factsheets/Hantavirusfs.pdf.