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Monique Keiran: Fatal pesticide linked to chemical weapons

The recent tragedy experienced by a Fort McMurray family has roots in century-old events. In February, an eight-month-old baby and her two-year-old brother died after breathing in a pesticide fumigant.

The recent tragedy experienced by a Fort McMurray family has roots in century-old events.

In February, an eight-month-old baby and her two-year-old brother died after breathing in a pesticide fumigant. Four other family members required treatment, with one requiring intensive care in Edmonton.

The building where the family lives is infested with bedbugs. During a visit to Pakistan, the children’s mother had purchased pesticide tablets to kill the bugs.

The pesticide is phosphine. This insecticide is usually sold as tablets that combine phosphide powder with calcium or aluminum. When the powder encounters moisture or humidity, it releases phosphine gas. It’s one of the most toxic pesticides registered in Canada, where only licensed operators can purchase and use it.

When inhaled, the gas irritates the lungs and airway, harms the heart and circulation, and produces severe stomach pains. It also interferes with the central nervous system, much like sarin gas, an outlawed chemical weapon. Its effects can be immediate and severe, depending on level of exposure.

Phosphine gas wasn’t known 100 years ago. Had it been, it might have been used in the war in Europe.

Known as the chemists’ war, the First World War industrialized production of many new chemicals. For example, Germany’s Nobel prize-winning scientist Fritz Haber turned his process that captured nitrogen from the air and converted it into a usable, controllable form for weapons production.

This process, which had revolutionized agriculture in earlier years and ensured enough food for several subsequent billions of people, also opened the door to development of high-explosive weapons.

During the war, combatants on all sides started perfecting the art of slaughtering people and levelling buildings at a distance.

Haber also proposed development and use of chemical weapons to advance the war, a story that eventually leads indirectly to Fort McMurray. He was present near Ypres, Belgium, on April 22, 1915, and worked with German soldiers to deploy chlorine gas as a weapon for the first time against opposing troops.

The Victoria Daily Colonist later reported the gas attack. “Thick yellow smoke emitted from the German trenches and, driven by northerly winds, produced an effect of complete asphyxiation among our troops, which was felt even in our second-line positions.”

In the chaos following the gas attack, Canadian soldiers serving under, among others, Victoria’s own brigade commander Sir Arthur Currie, successfully held the line despite gas, no reserves, inadequate equipment and insufficient ammunition.

Although the French army had used tear gas in 1914, the use of chlorine at Ypres set the war on a new course. Scientists on both sides researched new forms of gas to poison, kill, maim and terrorize opponents, with chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas being the most common. In total, the combatants lobbed more than 66 million chemical bombs at each other before the war ended.

Many people who were gassed and survived suffered lifelong effects. Scarring in their lungs left them susceptible to bronchitis, emphysema and infection. Many also endured liver, kidney and skin damage, blood disorders and immune-system problems, as well as psychological effects.

Of the Canadians who had survived the first chlorine attacks in April 1915, two-thirds of the gas casualties were sent home to Canada to recover.

Of these, half remained unfit for duty at war’s end, more than three years later.

After the war, many of the chemicals were repurposed as pesticides. As decades passed, new pesticides, with similar or more toxic effects, were identified and produced.

Although stronger international laws now prohibit use of chemical weapons, their use occurs. The UN found evidence of chlorine gas and sarin nerve gas used in Syria in 2013 and 2014. Iraq used chemical weapons in its war against Iran. Both the U.S. and the Soviets stockpiled chemical weapons during the Cold War.

And in many parts of the world, many of these chemicals in pesticide form are controlled.

But different countries have different rules and borders, as we know, can be porous — allowing a well-meaning mother to purchase phosphine tablets in Asia and bring them home to Canada to rid her Fort McMurray apartment of bedbugs.

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