(Beyond Pesticides, February 11, 2010) Investigators are tying the deaths of 4-year and 15-month old sisters in Layton, Utah to a pesticide that was used to kill voles, small burrowing rodents, in their family’s front yard. The 4-year-old, Rebecca Toone, died Saturday and her sister Rachel died on Tuesday after the family was hospitalized with flu-like symptoms then discharged. The girls went back to the hospital when they fell ill again after returning home. The cause of the deaths has not yet been determined, according to the Utah Medical Examiner’s Office, and toxicology tests are expected to take up to eight weeks to complete. However, investigators say that the chemical may have wafted into the family’s home after an exterminator dropped Fumitoxin, aluminum phosphide, pellets in burrow holes in the lawn on Friday. Upon exposure to moisture in the air, the pellets immediately decompose to phosphine gas.
The death of these children and the poisoning of the family raise serious issues about the adequacy of the pesticide’s label restrictions, approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and their enforceability. In the case of aluminum phosphide, EPA has allowed the use that led to these avoidable deaths after proposing to ban the pesticide’s residential uses in 1998 in its reregistration eligibility document (RED). Current label directions for aluminum phosphide pellets and tablets used in animal burrows on residential property allow their application within 15 feet of a home. See Fumitoxin Applicators Manual, p.32. However, EPA, in proposing a 100 foot treatment limit and other measures in 1998 said, “These actions would eliminate the residential uses of aluminum and magnesium phosphide but would allow for rodent control to continue under other circumstances.” See RED Facts, Aluminum and Magnesium Phosphide, 1998, pp11-12.
Aluminum phosphide is known to be highly acutely toxic when ingested or inhaled. Symptoms of mild to moderate acute exposure include nausea, abdominal pain, tightness in chest, excitement, restlessness, agitation and chills. Symptoms of more severe exposure include, diarrhea, cyanosis, difficulty breathing, pulmonary edema, respiratory failure, tachycardia (rapid pulse) and hypotension (low blood pressure), dizziness and/or death.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the pest control company Bugman Pest and Lawn purportedly placed about one and a half pounds of the aluminum phosphide pellets along the sidewalk leading up to the Toone’s front porch, up to about seven feet from the front door and three feet from the garage. Inspectors believe that the phosphine gas that is given off from the aluminum phosphide collected in an open space underneath the porch and seeped into the house from there.
According to Fumitoxin’s manufacturer, the pellets are not supposed to be used within 15 feet of any building occupied by people or animals. The manufacturer also recommends 2 to 4 tablets per hole for rodent control, which means that according to estimates from the article, the pest control company used approximately 227 tablets, or enough for at least 56 vole burrows. The product’s direction say the following: “This product may be used out-of-doors only for control of burrowing pests. THIS PRODUCT MUST NOT BE APPLIED INTO A BURROW SYSTEM THAT IS WITHIN 15 BEET (5 METERS) OF A BUILDING THAT IS, OR MAY BE, OCCUPIED BY HUMANS, AND/OR ANIMALS – ESPECIALLY RESIDENCES.”
The original EPA proposal, which did not take effect, reads as follows: “The Agency is concerned about the possibility of unintended exposure to residents or other bystanders that might result from rodent control uses near homes or other commercial facilities such as hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. Therefore, the Agency is proposing that treatment of burrows for rodent control be prohibited within 100 feet of a residence. Note that the current labels have a restriction of 15 feet, which may not be protective if burrow tunnels extend toward residences (basements). Applicators involved in the fumigation of animal burrows would be required wear [sic] respiratory protection during the course of the operation. These actions would eliminate the residential uses of aluminum and magnesium phosphide but would allow for rodent control to continue under other circumstances.”
While the pest control company that applied these chemicals is licensed and certified to use them, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has sent two investigators to determine whether state or federal pesticide laws may have been violated.
The Utah National Guard’s 85th civil support team has been commisioned to test and clean up the contamination, digging up the affected dirt and mixing it with water in an attempt to neutralize the pesticide. According to Lt. Col. Tyler Smith, the commander of the crew, concentrations of only 50 parts per million can be deadly for a 150 pound person. After the girls death, the crews detected concentrations of phosphine at 30 parts per million near an entryway, in the garage, and in a bedroom.
Beyond Pesticides believes that integrated pest management (IPM) is a vital tool that aids in the rediscovery of non-toxic methods to control rodents and facilitates the transition toward a pesticide-free (and healthier) world. It offers the opportunity to eliminate or drastically reduce pesticide use and to minimize the toxicity of and exposure to any products that are used. Sanitation, structural repairs, mechanical and biological control, pest population monitoring are some IPM methods that can be undertaken to control rodents. For more information on IPM, contact Beyond Pesticides or visit our IPM program page. To learn more about rodenticides, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Rodenticides fact sheet.
Beyond Pesticides and other organizations have raised concerns about chemicals that volatilize as gas and chemical fumigants that move through the air from the target site (be it an animal burrow or an agricultural crop). In June 2009, Beyond Pesticides and 27 groups from across the country sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson indicating that the agency’s new fumigants policy “continues an outdated EPA approach to pesticide regulation that adopts unrealistic and unenforceable standards as risk mitigation measures, in an age of safer, greener approaches to agricultural pest management.”
Take Action: Email EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and tell EPA to protect children and families by banning aluminum phosphide and deadly fumigants, and advancing green alternatives to toxic chemicals. These chemicals are not needed to achieve our pest management goals and the deaths and illness resulting from their use are avoidable and intolerable.
Source: The Salt Lake Tribune