Thursday, March 13, 2014

Thailand: Québec Sisters Both Killed in 2012 by Toxic Pesticide on Phi Phi Island

According to, a highly toxic pesticide used to control bedbugs in hotels in Thailand may have caused the mysterious deaths of Audrey, 20, and Noémi Bélanger, 25, both from Québec, who set off on a trip to the country's in 2012. 

Tragically, after their first night there, their daily emails to their parents suddenly stopped.

the devoted sisters were later found in the guest room they shared on Phi Phi Island by a maid.  Both were covered in vomit with their fingernails and toenails tinged blue.

According to a tip received by CBC’s The Fifth Estate and Radio-Canada’s Enquete, what may have killed Audrey and Noémi was a lethal pesticide known as aluminum phosphide.

Not believing the Thai government, which proved to be a prudent instinct, Audrey and Noémi's parents, Carl and Linda Bélanger, requested that the coroner in Québec conduct autopsies on both of their daughters.

In Canada, the use of aluminum phosphide is strictly regulated, and fumigators must get six months of training before they can handle it. Denis Bureau, a fumigation specialist in Québec who is licensed to use it, told the fifth estate’s Mark Kelley that it could kill a human in less than two hours if the concentration is high enough.

“If you’re asleep in the room next to it or in the room where it’s been under fumigation, you’ll be dead in a few hours,” Kelly emphasized.

Bureau said aluminum phosphide is commonly used to kill insects in large spaces such as grain silos or ship cargo holds. In Canada, it is not permitted to be used in spaces like homes or hotels.  It is typically found in the form of pellets that, once exposed to air and moisture, release a poisonous gas called phosphine.  

COMMENT: Thai officials told the CBC/Radio-Canada investigation that the use of aluminum phosphide in hotels is strictly forbidden, yet the Thai phrase, "Mai Pen Rai," which means "Don't worry," is applied all too often to tourists that end up dying in The Land of Smiles.

A team from ​Enquête went undercover to visit seven pest control companies in Thailand to see if it is possible to get the pesticide for use in a hotel.

Employees at most of the companies said they did not use this pesticide in hotels. But at one company, the owner explained how simple it is to use aluminum phosphide pellets to kill bedbugs in a hotel or guest house. After three days, she said a room fumigated with aluminum phosphide would be safe to sleep in.

The CBC/Radio-Canada investigation learned that the Bélanger sisters were not the only travelers whose deaths may be linked to this pesticide. In May of 2009, two other tourists staying on Phi Phi Island also died mysteriously.

Norwegian Julia Bergheim and American Jill St. Onge were staying in adjacent rooms at the Laleena Guest House, and they experienced similar symptoms including vomiting, dizziness and blue fingernails and toenails. Both were dead within 24 hours.

Four years after her daughter’s death, Bergheim’s mother, Ina Thoresen, received a report from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. 

Authorities in Oslo had consulted with leading experts from around the world about what happened to her daughter. Though they could not state the exact cause of Bergheim’s death, they concluded that the most likely cause was poisoning from the phosphine gas released by the pesticide.

The Norwegian report also states that Canadian medical examiners found traces of the gas from aluminum phosphide in the bodies of the Bélanger sisters.

Toxicologist Joel Mayer said that the symptoms experienced by the Bélanger sisters, Bergheim and St. Onge are typical of someone exposed to aluminum phosphide. Mayer said blue fingernails and toenails are a classic indicator of oxygen deprivation.

In all, since 2009, there have been about a dozen suspicious deaths of other tourists in Thailand, some of which may be linked to the misuse of pesticides.

In 2011, four people staying in a hotel Chiang Mai died within a few days. After those deaths, a Thai investigation suggested pesticides might have been the cause, and recommended further study of the risk.

At Thailand’s Ministry of Health, Dr. Pasakron Akarasew said there is growing concern about pesticides.

Ina Thorsen, Julia Bergheim's mother, does not believe that Thailand is a safe place to visit.

As I have said so often in the past, accommodation properties such as hostels, guest-houses and budget-driven properties are more likely to skirt Thai regulations, given the failure of the Thai government to insist on regular inspection of those who rent rooms out.

Although three-to-five star properties, particularly international chains that can be sued in court for wrongful injury or death, take extraordinary steps to ensure that only safe fumigation agents are used. 

Last October, Carl and Linda Bélanger received a letter of condolence from the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports. In it, the couple was offered the equivalent of US$20,000 to compensate them for the death of their daughters.

The Bélangers refused the money, and said the offer will not stop them from speaking out about what happened to their daughters. They want to put pressure on Thai authorities to prevent more deaths.

Particularly in Thailand, where authorities are well known for ignoring anything directly or indirectly related to life-safety, I urge visitors to be proactive and specifically ask the managers of accommodations whether aluminum phosphide is used as a fumigation agent.

If you get a hesitant response or one that suggests "back-paddling," immediately seek out a three-to-five star property, preferably an international chain:

In all, since 2009, there have been at least a dozen suspicious deaths in Thailand that may well be connected to the use of aluminum phosphide in the fumigation of bed-bugs in budget-oriented accommodations.

Surprisingly, despite the number of unexplained deaths potentially from aluminum phosphide poisoning, few embassies accredited in Thailand alert their citizens to this potential environmental threat. 

For those looking for a reasonably priced high-quality hotel property in Thailand, please consider: