Improper pesticide use turned into a tragically fatal hazmat case at a mobile home in northeast Amarillo, Texas, on January 2. The innocent children who died were siblings ages seven, nine, eleven and seventeen. Five other people who were present were also sickened by the fumes.
The property had been treated with a pesticide, aluminum phosphide, which is marketed to kill voles, weasels, and other small animals. In this case, it was used to rid the property of mice. It seems that a family member first applied the pesticide and later, wanting to wash the chemical away, hosed down the ground beneath the home. In a terrible twist, rather than getting rid of the pesticide, the water caused a chemical transformation, creating a highly lethal substance, phosphine gas. It can cause pulmonary edema, with fluid accumulating in the lungs, resulting in death.
A call came in to Texas emergency workers at about 5:00 a.m. after someone entered the home and found all of the occupants ill and one unconscious. First responders thought it could be carbon monoxide poisoning, but the substance was later identified as phosphine gas.
One clue may have been that phosphine gas has a distinct odor, which was present, while carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless. The FDA lists the original substance, aluminum phosphide, as a restricted-use fumigant that should be administered only by certified pesticide applicators, and that it should be used at least fifteen feet away from any residence. An FDA write-up of the chemical seems contradictory: In some places, it suggests further restrictions on use, while in other cases still allowing its use in agriculture, animal feed, and near underground water sources.
This is not the first incident of this pesticide killing children when phosphine gas was formed—a painful reminder that children’s smaller bodies can be more easily harmed by toxins than those of adults. From a legal standpoint, news reports seem to suggest that the person who acquired and applied the rodenticide was not certified to do so. Had this been an improper administration by an exterminator, the family could seek damages from that company.
In this case, it might still be possible to sue the manufacturer or the distributor for wrongful death if it’s considered that they did not adequately protect their users from harm or warn them sufficiently. The brand used was widely reported to have been Weevil-Cide. Some product warnings can be seen in this online PDF manual, although we don’t know the presentation of the chemical at the time of its purchase and use in this particular case.
Cases like these may remind us all that with some hazardous jobs, specialized training often accompanies them. It also suggests that we can’t all assume that we are safe just because regulations and laws exist; we are only safe as far as people follow them.
There are some personal injury cases where the business owner has to take reasonable care in helping people not hurt themselves or others. Perhaps the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should consider further restricting the substance’s use, as even trained professionals can make mistakes with such a volatile substance—and do on a regular basis. Users can also flat-out ignore carefully drafted safety warnings. Other people might decide they can just do what they’d pay someone else to do without realizing the consequences of their actions.
Colley & Colley, LLP is a Texas personal injury law firm that represents clients who have been hurt by other people’s actions or negligence. We know how to fight insurance companies for the best compensation and how to present the strongest case in front of a judge or jury. You can contact us at any time to discuss your situation by calling 1-877-411-2001 or reaching us through the form on this page.