Pesticide blamed in Fort McMurray tragedy

Property manager surprised by news of infestation after phosphine claims baby’s life
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Erin Ruddy

Update: Thursday, February 26, 2015: A second child — a two-year-old boy — has also died as a result of exposure to the pesticide.

The recent death of an eight-month-old girl and the hospitalization of four young boys in Fort McMurray, Alberta, have put the spotlight on one Fort McMurray apartment complex in a way that can only be described as a property manager’s worst nightmare.

Sandy Mijajlovic not only manages the 4-storey building, known as Heathstone Manor, but she also lives there. “I’ve had tenants stay here for 29 years and this is the first time something like this has happened,” she said. “The family never contacted me, never complained about anything. So if something was wrong with the unit I had no knowledge of it.”

The tragic incident has been linked to deadly phosphine tablets that were discovered in the family’s apartment. They were allegedly purchased by the tenant in Pakistan and illegally brought back to Canada.

Mijajlovic reiterated that prior to the incident there had been no reports of bed bugs. In fact, she said the first time she heard the words “bed bugs” mentioned in connection to the tragedy was two days after the children were hospitalized.

“We take all necessary steps to steam clean and sterilize the units after a tenant moves out. When there is a problem, whatever it is, we do our best to fix it,” she said. “We are not a high-end apartment building but we do have standards.”

According to Mijajlovic, the family had been living at Heathstone Manor for about 18 months and had recently returned from travelling in Pakistan. On Sunday February 22nd, all five children developed “food-poisoning-like symptoms,” prompting the parents to seek medical help. Two boys aged two and six were airlifted to the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton where they were listed in critical condition. Two others aged four and seven, were treated in a Fort McMurray hospital and are listed in stable condition. Sadly, the baby girl did not survive.

When the container of insecticide pellets was discovered in the apartment, emergency services planned to evacuate the entire building, but air quality testing determined it safe, and those who had been evacuated were allowed back inside the building at approximately 6:30 p.m. the same day.

Mijajlovic was assured by fire officials that the building was cleared for re-entry, and there is no lingering risk to health and safety. “I’m not a health care professional, I don’t know how this happened, but it’s a tragedy and my heart goes out to the family.”

When pests do strike…
The tragic incident has also put pesticides back in the spotlight as a method of treating bed bugs. Though the phosphine tablets were purchased illegally and used without the landlord’s knowledge, questions surround the safety and efficacy of fumigants as a form of pest treatment, whether controlled and professionally managed or not.

Alice Sinia, Ph.D., Resident Entomologist for Orkin Canada, explained, “Phosphine is a fumigant for controlling pests in commodities, such as bulk grains, stored food products and animal feed. It is not registered for bed bug control in Canada and it is actually illegal to use for their treatment.”

Sinia emphasized that in order to buy and apply phosphine, one must have a province-issued license and permit. “It is a safe pesticide fumigant if used as intended and per the label directions,” she said.

Though phosphine can be lethal to people of all ages, health experts say children tend to be more vulnerable because they have a higher metabolic rate and are less able to eliminate the chemical from their systems. In the Fort McMurray incident, the toxic tablets had been scattered around the floor-level of the apartment where the children were more apt to be playing, putting them further at risk.

Sinia advises property managers to use an integrated approach to treating bed bugs. “The most accepted and effective treatment,” she said, “includes early detection by monitoring, and use of mechanical methods, such as vacuuming and steaming, and targeted insecticide treatment strategies.”

Both property managers and tenants should continuously inspect and monitor for signs of bed bugs, such as cast-off skins, reddish-brown spots on mattresses and linens, and bed bugs themselves. They are typically found behind headboards and night stands or along baseboards.

If bed bugs are suspected, Sinia recommends the following:

  • Launder all clothing and linens in plastic bags immediately. (Typical laundering and tumble drying on hot will kill bed bugs.)
  • Empty all closets, wardrobes and drawers. If free of bed bugs, place the contents in sealed plastic bags.
  • Vacuum thoroughly, especially along carpet edges, baseboards, shelves, mattress seams and bed frames and headboards. Dispose of the vacuum bag immediately as far away from the property as possible.
  • Call your local licensed pest control company. Licensed technicians can confirm the presence of bed bugs and provide the most effective and safe treatment options.