Two detained over Basateen poisoning

Samir Al-Saadi & Roger Harrison | Arab News
Publication Date: 
Thu, 2009-02-26 03:00

JEDDAH: Local authorities announced arrests in the fatal pesticide poisoning at Basateen compound that resulted in the death of two Danish children.

“Two workers of the local pest control company are in custody and are being questioned,” said Col. Misfar Al-Juaid, spokesman for Jeddah police. The identities of the detained men were not revealed.

Last night Arab News learned Jeddah Gov. Prince Mishaal bin Majed ordered the removal of all the so-called “restricted use pesticides” from the local market. Later, officials will evaluate how to regulate more effectively the use and sale of these pesticides.

The detained workers, who were picked up Tuesday evening, were employees of Super Kill, a Jeddah-based pest exterminator.

Civil Defense warned that pesticides containing aluminum phosphide are not to be used in homes. The use of these pesticides has resulted in numerous deaths in Saudi Arabia, mostly of children who are more susceptible to the poisonous gas produced by this fumigant.

The US Environmental Protection Agency categorizes aluminum phosphide as a “restricted use pesticide” mainly used as an indoor fumigant at crop transport, storage or processing facilities. When the chemical comes in contact with moisture (including ambient humidity) it produces a dangerous gas called phosphine.

The use of pesticides that release phosphine gas are banned in residential areas. These restrictions apply in Saudi Arabia as well.

“The substance is banned from home use,” said Al-Juaid.

A municipal official in Jeddah who did not want to be named told Arab News yesterday that unmarked packages of pesticide containing this dangerous compound are being sold widely for as little as SR1 per tablet.

According to a Basateen memo obtained by Arab News, Super Kill workers arrived at the compound Saturday morning to fumigate one of the residences whose occupants were leaving for a vacation.

The workers had advised compound administrators that the “villa” must remain vacated for 72 hours.

At some point after Saturday morning, the family in the adjoining unit returned from a short trip. Fumes from the vacant residential unit drifted into the occupied one because the two residencies comprise a duplex.

Although the residential units on Basateen each have their own air conditioning, an engineer who knows the systems said that there is some sharing of ducting.

“There are gaps you could get your arm through,” he said.

By Monday morning the two children, a six-year-old girl and her three-year-old brother, were experiencing physical symptoms of phosphine gas poisoning.

The parents, who were also made ill, managed to get their children to hospital by around 9:30 a.m. The children later succumbed to the poisoning.

The parents are reportedly recuperating from the effects of the poisoning. The Danish Embassy in Riyadh would not report on their condition yesterday, citing privacy concerns. An Embassy source said two physicians from Denmark have arrived to provide medical assistance.

Emotions running high

Residents of Basateen compound met on Tuesday night to quiz the compound’s officials and a spokesman from the Ministry of Health.

In a noisy and angry meeting, residents demanded an explanation of the deaths and the exact nature of the chemicals involved.

“Most of the residents had come. They were concerned about their safety and were very angry at the compound management,” one of the residents who attended the meeting told Arab News.

One resident who did not want to be named claimed that a similar incident took place a year ago.

“That time, they used a substance that obviously did smell and the residents of the villa next door (a South African with twin babies) were evacuated from their villa after they complained about the smell,” said the source.

Pure phosphine is odorless, but in many cases it has a fishy or garlic smell due to other compounds in the pesticide.

Many residents confirmed during the course of the meeting that the individual residential units were not airtight and that they could easily smell neighbors’ cigarette smoke.

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