Poisoned in Paradise: A Look at the Pesticide Methyl Bromide

Methyl bromide allegedly was sprayed in the apartment below a Delaware family.

ByABC News
April 6, 2015, 1:17 PM

— -- Members of a Delaware family of four remain seriously ill after possibly being exposed to a pesticide, methyl bromide, on their vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands in March.

The pesticide allegedly was sprayed in an apartment below them to fix a bug problem the same day the family arrived at their vacation rental condominium unit at the Sirenusa resort on St. John, according to Judith Enck, administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 2 Office, which covers the U.S. Virgin Islands.

By that night, Enck said, the entire family "started having adverse health effects." Both boys had seizures, according to Enck.

Paramedics responded and took the family to a hospital on neighboring island St. Thomas. Three of the family members were put on ventilators, Enck said. The family was then airlifted to hospitals in the U.S.

What is methyl bromide?

Methyl bromide is a potent neurotoxin that affects the nervous system.

The EPA banned methyl bromide for indoor residential use in the 1980s, Enck said, but the product still is on the market for agricultural use. It's commonly used in California on strawberries, Enck said.

"Decades ago, we established rules saying that pesticide applicators cannot use this toxic pesticide indoors because we were afraid of an outcome just like this one," Enck said.

Enck said it's important to educate the public about alternatives to very toxic pesticides.

"There's something called integrated pest management where you can look at lesser toxic or non-toxic ways to deal with bug problems," she said.

Why is methyl bromide dangerous?

According to the EPA, methyl bromide exposure can cause short-term and long-term problems including severe lung injuries and neurological impairment.

"Exposure to methyl bromide is quite serious," Enck said, "And it can really damage your nervous system."

Exposure can cause brain damage and comas, Enck added.

"There are a number of serious health impacts that anyone applying this would know about once they looked at the label on the product and then looked at the supporting documentation that talked about health impacts," she said.

The EPA issued a pesticide warning in the Caribbean and is examining if methyl bromide was used in other locations in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"Some vacationers or residents may not have had the very serious health response that this family has had, but it can cause headache, nausea, dizziness; it can affect whether your body shakes or not," Enck said.

How is the EPA investigating?

Following the family's hospitalizations, the EPA launched a "comprehensive investigation," Enck said. Officials were sent to sample and monitor the resort's apartments to see if any of the pesticide was left.

"We're looking at what happened here, which we consider an illegal application of methyl bromide," Enck said.

Sea Glass Vacations, which acts as a rental agent for several rental units at Sirenusa, said in a statement that it is "aware that authorities are actively investigating the possibility that the illnesses were due to chemicals used for pest control. The unit immediately below Villa Capri was recently treated for pests by Terminix, however, Villa Capri itself had not been so treated. ... Sea Glass Vacations does not treat the units it manages for pests but instead relies on licensed professionals for pest control services. We are committed to full cooperation with all the authorities currently investigating this matter."