Gatineau home decontaminated after family sickened by toxic coral

Workers in yellow Hazmat suits and gas masks decontaminated a house in Gatineau Saturday morning after seven family members became seriously ill when they were exposed to toxic coral from their home aquarium.

Family of 5 staying at neighbour's house while house is bleached by cleaning crew

A cleaning crew bleached a home in Gatineau on Saturday, April 28, 2018, after a family became ill due a toxin released into the air from live corals in their aquarium. (Joe Lofaro/CBC)

Workers in Hazmat suits and gas masks decontaminated a house in Gatineau, Que., Saturday morning after a family of seven became seriously ill following their exposure to toxic coral from their aquarium.

The dramatic scene on the quiet residential street looked like a scene out of an episode of the TV series Breaking Bad, with a large white trailer parked in their driveway and workers dressed head-to-toe in protective gear, carefully dumping toxic substances into large steel drums. 

Last weekend, Jason Laframboise, 31, was transferring live Australian zoanthid coral specimens he bought from a hobbyist into a massive 1,100-litre saltwater aquarium when he started to feel ill.

He went to the hospital suffering from chest pain, breathing difficulties and the shakes. Six other family members were also quarantined in hospital.

A worker from MD-UN disposes one of several corals that's believed to have caused a Gatineau, Que., family to have fallen ill. (Joe Lofaro/CBC)

This type of zoanthid can contain a harmful substance called palytoxin, which was apparently released into the air when Laframboise handled it, causing the family to become sick.

One Toronto coral grower has told CBC News that zoanthids are "one of the most toxic things in the aquarium industry."

On Saturday Laframboise's home was still surrounded by red caution tape as crews packaged up the hazardous materials from inside his home.

The whole ordeal has been surreal for Laframboise, his wife — who is six months pregnant — and their three kids. 

'I feel like we're going to have a home again'

"It was really stressful. We didn't realize all the necessities that we have and once they're taken away, you really realize that leaving with just the clothes on your back is hard," he said from his neighbour's front lawn Saturday, as he watched the crews working.

The Laframboise family's experience has thrown the safety of certain aquarium corals into the spotlight. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Laframboise said it took more than four days to get answers about what would be done to decontaminate his home. 

He said he was eventually informed he'd have to remove his carpets and other soft fabric items from his home because they might be contaminated.

The family, Laframboise said, is staying at a neighbour's house as he waits to hear from his insurance company.

"I feel relieved. I feel like we're going to have a home again in maybe a week's time," he said. 

Jason Laframboise hopes his family of five can return home within a week's time. (Joe Lofaro/CBC)

Pierre Corriveau, chemist and operations manager at MD-UN, and his crew removed the coral from the home so that they could be safely transported to a facility for safe disposal. 

A private company, MD-UN is commonly called in for emergency cleanups of hazardous goods from tanker collisions and derailments. The company helped clean up the Lac Mégantic disaster in 2013. 

But this is the first time, Corriveau said, that he'd been called in to deal with a family's home aquarium. 

Toxic coral reported in Texas 

Keith Hamilton, co-owner of Marinescape, a saltwater aquarium retailer in west Ottawa, said he's going to stop selling zoanthid because of what happened to the Gatineau family.

"Up until today, really, this is unheard of," he said, adding that he was surprised the family became ill because Laframboise said he was extra cautious when handling the specimens. 

More regulations are needed on the sale of this type of coral because of how dangerous they can be when handled, even with care, according to Hamilton.

"I don't want to be involved in their distribution anymore — at least that particular genus." 

On Friday, a Texas woman was reportedly hospitalized for nearly two days after cleaning palythoa corals from her saltwater aquarium using a toothbrush.