The Amarillo Globe News has reported tragic deaths of 4 children after exposure to phosphine gas. Phosphine is a toxic gas that inhibits cellular respiration; it acts at the same enzyme target site as cyanide. Pesticide formulations for phosphine release typically are pellets or tablets of aluminum phosphide called “phostoxin”. Phostoxin is a restricted use pesticide, available only to trained licensed pesticide applicators. It is considered a too dangerous for the general public to handle. The pellets must be kept dry until ready for use and personal protective equipment is required for safe handling. Phostoxin pellets release toxic phosphine gas when placed in water. For example, fumigation of a grain bin could be accomplished by a pesticide applicator wearing a respirator and hazmat suit. The tablets would be placed in a large container of water and the applicator would immediately leave, sealing the door as the phosphine gas is released and permeates the structure. The structure must be properly ventalated after fumigation is complete before it is safe to reenter.
In this incident the phostoxin pellets were underneath a trailer. It is unclear whether they were placed in burrows under the trailer or stored inappropriately. An occupant of the trailer sprayed the pellets with water to wash away the pesticide. However this action released poison phosphine gas that entered the trailer and poisoned the occupants. The occupants became ill and lethargic. They were later discovered by a friend and removed from the trailer. Some occupants recovered but four children died from their exposure
Phostoxin pellets have been implicated in other deaths including incidents in 2011 and 2008. In these cases, the pellets were used to kill rodents and applied too near to a house. Phostoxin pellets are not a particularly effective means of controlling rodents and certainly the pellets should not be used near a residence or where people could come in contact with the phosphine gas.
Pesticides can be hazardous if not used according to directions. In this incident, the pellets were applied or stored inappropriately underneath the trailer resulting in tragic consequences. Remember, when using pesticides always follow directions.