The deaths of two young Danish children in Jeddah last week from pesticide gas poisoning is a tragedy that should not have happened. This was not the first such case. Over a dozen other people, mostly children, have died in similar circumstances in the past year and a half. In January, two Ethiopian boys died after their home was fumigated; last September, two Saudi children died after pesticide was used in the house next door; three Pakistani children died in Madinah the same month when insecticide was used in their own home; in August 2007, two Egyptian girls died when a neighbor fumigated his house; the month before that, an entire Pakistani family of six died in Riyadh from pesticide gas poisoning after their apartment was fumigated. There have been other cases.
It is no comfort to hear that two men working for the pest control company involved in this latest tragedy have been arrested. What about the company? Were they properly trained in the use of aluminum phosphide? Is it company procedure to allow the product to be used in domestic premises when it is restricted to commercial buildings in the US and elsewhere — and supposedly in the Kingdom as well? Were the instructions in a language they understood? It is all very well insisting that instructions are in Arabic but many manual workers are not Arab; they may speak Arabic but reading it is another matter altogether.
What about the responsibility of the compound owners? It is clear from correspondence published in Arab News yesterday that the compound management was, as a result of a previous similar incident, fully aware of interconnecting air ducts between villas and that fumigation gas could be sucked from one into another. The management has a responsibility to make sure that when one villa is fumigated, the neighbors and everyone else is warned. What went wrong?
Lastly, why is it that officials were fully aware that the aluminum phosphide is widely sold in unmarked packaging — they have told the media as such — and yet did nothing?
Why after the tragedy of the Pakistani family a year and a half ago, when there were calls by experts for more rigorous controls on the sale and use of such deadly pesticides, was nothing substantial done?
There is a systemic problem here. The culture of “it’s not my responsibility” is in large part to blame. As readers know, they can walk into a pharmacy and buy drugs that in many other countries are available only by doctor’s prescription, and no one seems to care.
Controls are now being put into effect. For the Danish family, as for the others, it is too late. But controls are not enough. They have to be enforced. The authorities need to ensure that shops do not sell unmarked goods or restricted ones without permission. They have to monitor pest-control companies to ensure they employ staff with proven, certified skills and that they are properly trained on all the products used. A public awareness program on pesticides would also be invaluable. Last but not least, there needs to be a change in attitudes. Those in authority must understand they are responsible for ensuring that rules are obeyed. Public safety is their responsibility. It is high time they took it seriously.