Pesticide exposure is typically a concern for farm workers who apply them, but sometimes unsuspecting people are put through life-threatening experiences by coming into contact with the toxic chemicals.
A couple of months ago, an entire Delaware family became violently ill while vacationing in the U.S. Virgil Islands. Steve Esmond, his wife, and their two sons – one 16 years old and one just over 14 years of age – were enjoying their stay at a luxurious villa located in St. John, when Esmond was found unconscious in their hotel room. Two weeks later, his wife and sons started having seizures as well, and the family was airlifted to hospitals in the United States, where the boys and their father remained in critical condition.
An investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed that the family was poisoned by the highly toxic pesticide methyl bromide, which was used by employees of the pest control company Terminix to fumigate the condo below theirs in order to “deal with an indoor bug.” Methyl bromide, an odorless fumigant and pesticide, can be fatal or cause severe problems in humans, ranging from lung injury and respiratory damage to neurological problems. Due to its acute toxicity, the use of the pesticide has been banned indoors and is allowed only for limited agricultural uses by certified fumigators.
Unfortunately, the tragedy of the Esmond family is just one in a long series of vacation turned nightmares. In 2012, two Quebec sisters traveling in Thailand were found dead in their hotel room on the resort island of Ko Phi Phi Don. Lacking an autopsy report, Thai authorities offered an improbable list of possible causes, from mushroom intoxication to cocktails laced with DEET, the mosquito repellent. It rapidly became obvious that the sisters’ death, as well as that of several women found dead in similar circumstances, was caused by exposure to aluminum phosphide, a pesticide extensively used in Southeast Asia to kill bed bugs in hotels and guest houses.
These cases have gathered much attention lately, alarming many travelers that are now raising questions about the use of pest-controlling pesticides at hotels. Authorities, however, are taking a more relaxed stance, claiming that the incidents that happened in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Asia would simply not occur in North America, where the sale of such highly toxic pesticides is highly regulated.
But when it comes to international traveling, there may be a few reasons to worry. According to a spokesperson for the Pesticide Action Control, a lot of countries have weak or lax laws regarding hazardous pesticide use. As a result, many more travelers to countries from Africa or Asia may be exposed to low doses of pesticides, but never realize it, attributing their symptoms to something else, when in fact they are experiencing an allergic reaction to the chemical.
And the continuing spread of insect-borne diseases such as chikungunya and of nuisance pests such as cockroaches and bed bugs is only making things worse. Especially in developing countries where disease-carrying pests represent a public health problem or are resistant to conventional control methods, there is a tendency to resort to higher toxic chemicals and to use them more extensively.
Travelers who are indeed concerned about pesticide use in hotels are advised to check with the resort management before renting the room to inquire about existing pest problems and the control methods used to eradicate them. It is also important to open the doors and windows and air the rooms out as soon as they arrive.
Pesticide exposure, whether in hotels or other public places, is a problem that needs to be taken seriously. It is, ultimately, authorities’ job to promote safer alternatives to pesticides and make sure that “chemicals are used only in ways that preserve the health of communities and protect the integrity of the environment for present and future generations.” This would include carefully monitoring and restricting the use of very poisonous compounds, as well as educating the public about the potential serious impact of such substances on human health.
About the Author
Daniel Mackie, co-owner of Greenleaf Pest Control, is a Toronto pest control expert well-known as an industry go-to guy, an innovator of safe, effective pest control solutions, and is a regular guest on HGTV. Mackie, along with business partner Sandy Costa, were the first pest control professionals in Canada to use detection dogs and thermal remediation for the successful eradication of bed bugs. In his free time, he is an avid garde