Rodents & Risks to Cultural Heritage Custodians
By JoAnne Martinez-Kilgore for the Health & Safety Network
Custodians of cultural heritage items and collections, including conservation professionals, often encounter evidence of rodent activity in the form of droppings, staining, gnawing, and nests. At times they respond to live infestations or find rodent carcasses. Rodents find food, nesting material, and protected spaces within cultural heritage structures and storage areas, in caves, in previously disturbed soils of archaeological sites, and within human/animal remains. Contact with rodent excreta, secreta, and remains present an acute risk for humans; infected rodents can easily spread viruses. The virus that presents the largest risk of transmission from infected rodents in North America is the hantavirus, which can cause a serious, life-threatening condition known as Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS).
Rodents serve as reservoir hosts for these viral agents. Each strain of hantavirus is linked to a specific carrier. The geographic distribution of human cases of disease caused by hantaviruses are a result of the distribution and natural history of their primary rodent hosts. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), within the United States, four rodents carry the virus that can causes the HPS disease – the deer mouse, the cotton rat, the rice rat, and the white-footed mouse. The deer mouse is abundant in the United States (figure 1). The range of the deer mouse includes most of the continental US and much of Mexico and Canada.
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