Toxic fumes

15 Mar 2019


THE tragedy was a grim one by any yardstick — five minor siblings and their aunt dead within the space of 24 hours, and for no apparent reason. The family was visiting Karachi from Quetta and had checked into a government officers’ lodge in Karachi, when the children’s mother started feeling unwell in the evening and was rushed to hospital by their father. He soon got word from his sister at the guesthouse that her condition and that of the children was also rapidly deteriorating. Unfortunately, the minors expired before they could be given medical attention while their aunt died in hospital the next day. The incident led to speculation that spoiled food may have caused the fatalities, as was the case in the deaths of two children in Karachi last November. However, the police investigation in this instance has found it was fumes from a highly toxic substance called aluminum phosphide that had proved fatal. It seems that the chemical had been used a few hours earlier to eradicate bed bugs from the room. Several guesthouse employees have been arrested.

Much like the tragedy in November, this one too demonstrates a level of disregard for human life that beggars belief. Aluminium phosphide is a highly poisonous chemical employed in agricultural settings as a rodenticide and fumigant; it is not meant to be used inside closed spaces where humans can come into contact with it. While this is a clear case of criminal negligence, especially as the guesthouse is a government-run facility where regulations should have been in place to ensure fumigation only by a licensed company, it is also a cautionary tale for the public at large. People in this country have a remarkably cavalier attitude towards the risk posed by poisonous chemicals. Pesticides for use inside the home and in commercial establishments are also a health hazard. Even if they do not cause immediate harm, long-term exposure to them in the absence of safety measures can have dire consequences.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2019