Confusion clouds family's recovery from possible coral poisoning

Police and fire services are controlling access to a home in Gatineau's Aylmer sector whose residents say they were poisoned by toxins from coral, but the family affected still has no idea when they'll be able to return.

Days after incident, Laframboise family still doesn't know when they'll be able to return to Aylmer home

Gatineau police are restricting access to a home in Gatineau where seven members of a family are believed to have been sickened by toxins from coral in their aquarium. (Stu Mills)

Police and fire services are controlling access to a home in Gatineau's Aylmer sector whose residents say they were poisoned by toxins from coral, but the family affected still has no idea when they'll be able to return.

Jason Laframboise was setting up a newly purchased aquarium in his home on Sunday when he said seven members of his family suddenly fell ill, including three small children and his pregnant wife.

The family contacted Quebec's poison control centre and headed to hospital for treatment, believing they'd been poisoned by toxins released by Zoanthid coral.

On Tuesday, Laframboise said the family had moved in with relatives because authorities had failed to dispatch experts to inspect the home or help decontaminate it.

He said police told the family they'd need to contract a private company and pay themselves for the removal of toxic materials.  

But late Tuesday evening, police and fire officials visited Laframboise at his sister's home to inform him that a team of specialists from various government ministries was being assembled to come up with a plan.

On Wednesday, he said he heard from Quebec's ministry of public security, who referred him to the Red Cross for help with housing.

Toxins released by Zoanthid coral, seen here in this aquarium, are being blamed for causing seven members of a Gatineau family to become ill. (Stu Mills)

City won't discuss aid plan

Gatineau police referred all questions about the new plan to the City of Gatineau's media relations team.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson said she would provide no interviews, but issued a statement in French saying ​external partners with "expertise specific to the situation," including public health officials, are now involved in efforts to help the family.

Both police and fire services have intervened "according to their areas of expertise" to secure and control access to the property, according to the statement.

Laframboise said he's been confused by the emergency response because he received a call from a neighbour very late Tuesday informing him firefighters were outside his home.

When he got there, he discovered them covering buckets in the yard with plastic, and was told it was to prevent any toxins in the buckets from overflowing with rainwater and contaminating the nearby area.

"You know, it's nice to know what's going on. I'm stuck in the middle of this," Laframboise said. "Yesterday it was my fault, and then last night at midnight they're helping me. I want to stay in the loop and know exactly what's happening."

Jason Laframboise spent a night in hospital after he fell ill while handling coral in a newly acquired home aquarium. He believes he was sickened by toxins the coral releases to defend itself. (Supplied by Laframboise family)

'Probably the most toxic substance known to man'

A neuroscientist at Queen's University said the Laframboise family is right to be cautious about returning home.

"This is probably the most toxic substance known to man, or woman," said David Andrew. 

Andrew studies palytoxin — the substance produced by Zoanthid corals — in his lab.

He's interested in its effect on brain cells, which mimics what happens when those same cells are deprived of oxygen.

Namely, the cells become "leaky" and die quickly, he said.

Scientists in Andrew's lab expose brain tissue from rats to purified palytoxin acquired from a Japanese company.

They've never had a major spill, he said, but their protocol involves decontaminating the area with a strong bleach solution to clean up any drops.

Jason Laframboise says he still doesn't have a good idea of when he'll be able to re-enter his home after his family was exposed to a piece of toxic coral. Several agencies are meeting to determine the best way to clean the home. 0:34

Aquarium store getting calls

News of the Laframboise family's experience is making the rounds among aquarium enthusiasts and causing some concern, said Keith Hamilton, co-owner of an aquarium supply store called Marinescape.

Hamilton said he got five calls Wednesday, most of them from people within the industry wondering if he knew any more about the poisoning incident.

As a person who works regularly with corals, he, too, is hungry for more information.

"If this turns out to be palytoxin, maybe there needs to be some new protocols," he said.

Firefighters appeared at the Laframboise home late Tuesday evening, according to Jason Laframboise, and covered buckets in the yard with plastic.

Palytoxin poisoning very rare in Canada

A toxicologist with Quebec's poison centre told Radio-Canada that poisoning by palytoxin is extremely rare in Canada.

Maude St-Onge said in five years, she'd never encountered another case in Quebec, and when she contacted colleagues across the country after learning about the Laframboise family, she heard of just one other case.

However, Laframboise remains frustrated by the apparent shortage of expertise in decontamination, since Zoanthid coral is widely available in Canada and a very popular feature of saltwater aquariums — including one in his own basement, acquired long before the weekend crisis. 

He speculates the 1,100-litre aquarium he bought on the weekend was riskier because it was a mature tank with thousands of the toxic organisms.

"If you're selling a poisonous product in your country and you don't even know how to deal with it, I don't think that's right at all," Laframboise said.