AMARILLO, Texas, Jan. 3 (UPI) — In an effort to rid his family’s home of rodents, a man may have inadvertently poisoned his family last weekend because he was unaware of the extreme danger posed by misuse of a pesticide he’d used against the rodents.
Four children died Monday, and their parents and four other siblings were hospitalized, in Texas because of exposure to the lethal gas phosphine, which leached into the family’s manufactured home overnight after it was applied under the home to keep rodents away.
Police said they responded to what they thought was a call for carbon monoxide poisoning but started looking for other causes of an entire family being sick in their home.
“They were already getting an odor, and they were trying to suppress the vapors. He didn’t know enough about the chemical,” Amarillo Fire Department Lt. Josh Whitney told KFDA-TV. “The chemical is only sold to people that have a license to apply it, and he got this black market. He applied it yesterday, and then so over the night is whenever all the toxic gasses were leaching to inside the house ”
After applying a chemical called Weevil-Cide, Peter Balderas went back under his home to wash some of it away with water. What he didn’t know is that when the chemical is exposed to water, it produces phosphine gas — which causes respiratory failure.
Police and paramedics were called to the home after a neighbor stopped by and found the family of 10, parents and eight children, were all sick. By the time paramedics arrived, one of the children was already unconscious and unresponsive.
Police sent the other nine family members to the hospital, where three more of the children were pronounced dead. Balderas’ wife, Martha, is in critical condition, and Peter and their other four children are listed in stable condition. Two police officers, seven firefighters and a paramedic also were taken to the hospital as a precaution because of possible exposure to the gas, though they showed no signs of exposure.
Although police said they still need to verify that phosphine gas exposure caused the four children’s deaths, and autopsies are scheduled for Tuesday, they say the story is a cautionary tale for people who search out the strongest chemicals available but aren’t properly trained to use them.
“We knew something bad had happened,” said James Compton, one of the Balderas’ neighbors,about seeing the crowd of emergency vehicles and crews. “It’s crazy, we had no idea what was going on. It’s just sad, it’s a sad thing.”