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By: Julia Sisler
UPDATE: This week, Quebec coroner Renée Roussel revealed the details of her long-awaited report on the deaths of Bélanger sisters Audrey and Noémi.
The coroner concluded, as the fifth estate reported, that the Bélanger sisters likely did died because of phosphine poisoning from pesticides in their hotel room in Thailand. She also warned that some Thai hotels may still be using the pesticide illegally, and that about 20 Western tourists in Thailand have died in similar circumstances since 2009.
A highly toxic pesticide used to control bedbugs in some holiday hotels in Asia may have caused the mysterious deaths of two Quebec sisters travelling in Thailand as well as several other tourists, according to new evidence from a joint investigation by CBC’s the fifth estate and Radio-Canada’s Enquete.
Audrey and Noémi Bélanger set off on a trip through Thailand in 2012. Days after they arrived at the popular tourist destination of Phi Phi Island, a maid found the sisters dead in their hotel room. Both were covered in vomit, with their fingernails and toenails tinged blue.
Now for the first time, a Thai official is admitting that the sisters were probably killed by pesticide.
“The most likely explanation is the acute intoxication and it is intoxication from the chemical that belong to the pesticide group,” Dr. Pasakron Akarasewi with the Thai Ministry of Health told the CBC/Radio-Canada investigation.
Shortly after the sisters’ deaths, local authorities suggested several possible causes, from food poisoning to drugs.
The Bélangers requested that the Quebec coroner do an autopsy on their daughters. Almost two years since the autopsy was performed, the results have not been released. They are expected to be made public in June.
The CBC/Radio-Canada investigation received a tip about what may have killed the sisters that points to a lethal pesticide called aluminum phosphide.
In Canada, the use of this pesticide is strictly regulated, and fumigators must get six months of training before they can handle it. Denis Bureau, a fumigation specialist in Quebec 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,” he said.
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.
In Thailand, authorities told the CBC/Radio-Canada investigation that the use of aluminum phosphide in hotels is strictly forbidden.
A team from Enquete 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.
Not the only victims
The CBC/Radio-Canada investigation learned that the Bélanger sisters are not the only travellers whose deaths may be linked to this pesticide. In May of 2009, two other tourists staying on Phi Phi Island also died mysteriously.
Norwegian Julie 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 there 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 sign of oxygen deprivation.
“It’s a respiratory poison, affecting the transport of oxygen … or interfering with the utilization of oxygen by various cells in the body,” he told Kelley.
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 in the northern Thai city of 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.
“One of the emerging problems”
At Thailand’s Ministry of Health, Akarasewi said there is growing concern about pesticides.
“Chemical poisoning is one of the emerging problems. So we hope we can do the job better in the future,” he said.
He seemed surprised to hear that aluminum phosphide might be used in hotel rooms, since it is dangerous and illegal.
Still, he said Thailand is as safe as any other country.
“I may travel someplace and get the same problem,” he said. “I may go to Europe, Canada, Australia and can get the same problem like this.”
But Thoresen, Julie Bergheim’s mother, does not believe that Thailand is a safe place to visit.
“It’s a calculated risk to go to Thailand. You think that it’s safe to go there, but it’s not,” she said. “If anything happens, then you can’t get the help that you will get at home. Not from the police, not from the authorities, maybe not in the hospitals. I don’t know, that’s my experience.”
Last October, Carl and Linda Bélanger got a letter of condolence from the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports. In it, they were offered the equivalent of about $20,000 US in insurance coverage to compensate for their loss.
The Bélangers refused the money, and told Kelley the letter 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.
“If it was really a pesticide that was put in the bedroom and it was that powerful, it was negligence,” said Linda Bélanger. “I don’t want there to be any more people who die due to negligence.”
Tourist deaths in Vietnam
In the summer of 2012, two more young tourists died mysteriously, this time in Vietnam.
Cathy Huynh of Hamilton, Ontario and her American friend Kari Bowerman decided to take a brief holiday from their teaching jobs in South Korea. But after arriving in the coastal town of Nha Trang, they both woke up sick. Bowerman died that night. Two days later, Huynh was in a coma, and she died shortly after her family in Canada was contacted.
The Huynh family requested an autopsy in Canada, but since her body had been embalmed, tests for toxic substances were not possible. They were told she had died of an inflammation of the heart, called myocarditis, but what caused the inflammation was not certain.
The Hamilton coroner concluded her death was probably the result of an infection, most likely from a virus.
The Huynh family remains skeptical about that conclusion.
“It just doesn’t seem right that two girls went to Vietnam for a vacation, would get so sick that it would cause their death,” her brother, Michael Huynh told the fifth estate’s Linden MacIntyre.
He suspected his sister’s death might have been caused by a pesticide. However, the fifth estate consulted with dozens of experts familiar with conditions in south-east Asia and what was known about how the two friends died in Vietnam. Most of them were doubtful that a pesticide or insect spray could have killed these two young women, including Dr. Keith Solomon, the director of the Centre for Toxicology at the University of Guelph.
“It takes quite a lot of it to kill a person. You’d have to take at least six grams to kill yourself with it if you wanted to say, commit suicide,” Solomon said. “And you’d have to take it orally. It’s the only way that you can get enough in your body to kill you.”
With the Vietnamese government refusing to release the hospital and police reports from the case, and the deaths still remaining unsolved, the fifth estate commissioned a study at McMaster University in Hamilton. Dr. Hendrick Poinar runs one of a handful of labs in the world with the advanced technology to break down human tissue with such precision that he can identify what might have caused an illness hundreds of years ago.
Poinar explained that a team of specialists from Canada and the United States are working to decode the DNA from a small section of Huynh’s heart tissue and screen it for any type of bacterial, viral or fungal pathogens.
The preliminary results, which need to be verified with extensive testing, found the DNA of both viral and bacterial pathogens in the tissues.
Specialists will continue testing to determine if those pathogens were in fact what led to Huynh’s death.