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Pesticides, a threat to tourism

Published:Sunday | April 19, 2015 | 7:01 PM

A Delaware family vacation abruptly ended when all four members were airlifted to the United States (US) in critical condition following a suspected case of pesticide poisoning. The four members, including two teenage sons, fell critically ill during a stay at a condominium resort on the island of St John, US Virgin Islands.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that the family may have fallen ill because of exposure to fumes of a pesticide at the rented villa. Lab results indicate the presence of the highly toxic methyl bromide used to treat the furniture infested by the dry wood termites known as 'chi-chi'.

The rented villa at the US$875-per-night Sirenusa Condominium Resort in St John, St Croix, was fumigated with methyl bromide 18 days prior to being occupied by the visiting family. The affected family members were flown to a mainland US hospital for treatment.

Methyl bromide is an odourless gas used to control termites. It can be fatal or can cause serious damage to the central nervous and respiratory systems, according to the EPA. Since 1990, worldwide use of the toxic chemical as a fumigant and as an agriculture pesticide has been in the phasing out stage because of its significant contribution to ozone depletion.

While several countries in Latin America have high levels of methyl bromide use, its use in the Caribbean region is at low levels, on a sporadic and as needed basis for essential use only.

In Jamaica, the Pesticide Control Authority (PCA) has restricted the use of methyl bromide and import approval is limited to essential requirements. The user, mainly trained, licensed pest control personnel, is responsible to ensure that proper safety measures are followed.

Olive Downer Walsh, past PCA board member and general manager of Agro Grace, a leading distributor of pest control chemicals, told Hospitality Jamaica that they supply industry-safe pesticides only to PCA-licensed operators and that they be used only as intended and according to manufacturing guidelines.

post-entry period

"Several products are available to control termites, duck ants and chi-chi, of which the more toxic pesticides are for outdoor applications, while the less toxic is used indoor as recommended. Termiticides used indoors should not come into contact with food, and there is a recommended post-entry period before occupation," Downer Walsh advised.

She told Hospitality Jamaica that the market has available low-toxic, low-cost and highly effective pesticides that reduce the need to import highly toxic chemicals like methyl bromide. A source at Sandals Grand Riviera Beach & Villa Golf Resort who requested anonymity revealed that pesticides used at that property must pass stringent toxicity inspection if it is to be used at the hotel.

"We are monitored and certified by Earth Check for, among other things, pesticide use, so we are required to keep detailed records of chemical uses, and our external pest control service must provide an inventory of pesticide they will use at the hotel before treatment." The Sandals staff added that any pesticide used at the resort must pass the test of the public health department. Other Jamaican hotels and villas take similar measures in the use of toxic chemicals.

Earth Check is an organisation helping businesses, communities and governments enhance the environmental, economic and social sustainability of their tourism initiatives.

Methyl bromide used in fumigating the St John Condominium was traced to the Memphis, Tennessee-based Terminix, a leading provider of termite and pest control services in countries outside the US.

Terminix representative, Pete Tosches, in response to Hospitality Jamaica's query as to whether they acknowledge and assume responsibility for the St John poisoning, emailed a statement that read:

"First and foremost, the family is in our thoughts and prayers. We're cooperating with authorities in their investigation, and we're conducting our own thorough internal investigation. We're committed to performing all work we undertake in a way that is safe for our employees, customers and the public."

Broad-spectrum methyl bromide is used in the control of pests, insects, nematodes, pathogens, and rodents. It is used in US agriculture primarily for soil fumigation, but also for commodity and quarantine treatment, and structural fumigation. The EPA banned methyl bromide for residential use in 1984 primarily for health concerns. That ban extends to US territories, including the US Virgin Islands. Still, the pesticide was used indoors by an applicator working for Terminix.

The St Croix Department of Planning and Natural Resources have since issued a stop order on the use of methyl bromide.