Journalist suggests tourist in Thailand was killed by Chlorpyrifos used against bed bugs

by nobugsonme on May 10, 2011 · 4 comments

in bed bugs

New Zealand’s 60 Minutes has investigated the mysterious case of Sarah Carter, a young tourist who died while visiting Thailand.  Journalist Sarah Hall believes they have evidence Carter was killed by the overuse of the insecticide Chlorpyrifos, which was applied to treat bed bugs in her hotel.

60 Minutes consulted an expert who said the symptoms in the case and the levels of Chlorpyrifos that Hall found present in the room and others nearby after three months had passed (and after the rooms were apparently scrubbed clean), suggest Chlorpyrifos poisoning.

According to 60 minutes, seven tourists have recently died in Chiang Mai hotels under mysterious circumstances, most with remarkably similar symptoms including myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), and four of these (Carter, an English couple, and a Thai travel guide writer) died after staying in the same Downtown Inn hotel within the space of two months.

According to Hall, Thai authorities have raided the pest control firm involved.  The World Health Organization is now investigating, according to this 3 News video report from Monday. You can watch the detailed 60 Minutes piece on this case which aired Sunday (approximately 15 minutes long), or read an article on the story from 3 News.  60 minutes journalist Sarah Hall talks more about the investigation in this video, and The Daily Mail (UK) also has coverage of this story.

Although Chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate, is still in use domestically in some countries, it is banned for domestic use in New Zealand, and also banned under the EU Biocidal Products Directive, and by South Africa. In the US, it is restricted to outdoor use in mainly agricultural settings (see the EPA’s Chlorpyrifos Facts).

Some US pest control professionals speak fondly of the effectiveness of this product against bed bugs;  we’ve also heard from Bedbugger Forums users whose homes were treated with Chlorpyrifos in Sweden in 2009, and Russia in 2008.

Even if a particular pesticide can be used safely, this story reminds us that misapplication and overapplication can be deadly.  My heart goes out to the families and friends of Sarah Carter and the other tourists who have died, and I hope the authorities are able to verify the cause of death and take the steps needed to avoid further tragedies.

1 James Sherman May 10, 2011 at 9:13 am

I think the thing that makes this story particularly sad is that it wasn’t something that Ms. Carter, her friends, or anybody could have avoided. We all know that when travelling in some places, it isn’t wise to drink the water from the taps, but there’s really no way that we can tell if a room has been sprayed with toxic garbage recently.

Hopefully, the trepidation that this story causes some foreign tourists to stay in Thai hotels will be incentive enough for the government to crack down on the indoor use of Chlorpyrifos.

2 John May 11, 2011 at 7:33 am

Some are saying it may have not been the insecticide that killed them and I think so, too. I used chlorpyrifos for years; never once got sick or had a problem. I know a guy from work who spilled the CONCENTRATE DIRECTLY on his chest and arms. He puked and puked and missed work for a few days, but did not die.
Unless the girls were drinking the stuff or rolling around in the concentrate, I would be hesitant to attribute the spray to the girls’ deaths.

3 Ci Lecto May 17, 2011 at 11:20 pm

It’s sad how people in talk-back forums and blog comments often respond to stories about people who’ve been hurt by bed bugs or by possible misapplied pesticide. A few years back (and also a few months ago), a woman complained on a travel site about being treated with indifference when she complained to a plane crew that she was being bit by “mosquitoes” in her plane seat. Posters like these are taunted and vilified. They’re given spurious advice. And inevitably, someone chimes in that it could not have been bed bugs, because the commenters simply “knows” (or knows someone who “knows”. An infamous case was the post on a travel site that said “There are no bed bugs in Puerto Vallarta. I know the lady who runs the health department.”)

I don’t profess to know the truth about this case. I also don’t know how much of a particular pesticide it takes to hurt or kill a human, or if it affects all people the same way in all cases of exposure. But my hunch is that if you “know” this wasn’t a case of misapplied pesticide, then you don’t know sh-t. And if you extrapolate your own personal exposure history (or your friend’s-cousin’s-dog’s-groomer’s-sister’s-hairdresser’s-friend’s) to this case, then you’re not being helpful.

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