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Abusing Aluminum Phosphide and the hazards that come with it

Repeatedly, she sobbingly mutters the following words: “We only wanted to get rid of our bed bugs infestation, but now I have lost my husband.” Isatu Kamara and her husband, Pa Ibrahim Kamara-Cole, are the latest misled by unlicensed pesticide vendors in Freetown, Sierra Leone.  

This particular chemical compound is so-named Aluminum Phosphide and is a highly toxic inorganic compound primarily used to treat grain and tobacco stores. These grey-green pellets, also known as the killer, have over the years been domesticated as a treatment for bed bugs in Sierra Leone. However, Aluminum Phosphide is also a fumigant that releases a gaseous agent known as phosphine when exposed to a wet environment.  

Phosphine gas is described as having a garlic or rotten fish odour. The inhalation of the gas is dangerous to humans, as it causes respiratory irritation, depresses the central nervous system, and produces severe gastrointestinal pain. As it was the case when Pa Ibrahim Kamara-Cole and his wife, Isatu Kamara, bought this grey-green tablet encased in yellow packaging with no written directions on how to apply it skillfully. 

(A close-up view of the yellow packaging of the Aluminum Phosphide). Julian Koroma took the photo. 

“Just throw the tablet under your bed and leave it there to combat bed bug infestation,” was the vendor’s advice to the couple when they bought the product from him.

Pa Ibrahim Kamara-Cole did as was directed and went one step further to install two tablets under his pillow. As may have been the case, water from sleep sweat from Pa Ibrahim Kamara-Cole or a damp environment must have activated the phosphine gas from the aluminium phosphide tablet, which caused excessive vomiting for the elderly couple. 

Upon interview, the couple’s son, Ansu Kamara, said he was not present on the night of the incident. Still, upon his arrival, very early in the morning, he was enveloped in an awful smell of rotten fish and garlic. 

“I could hardly breathe; I had to use my handkerchief to cover my nose while I tried to open all the windows in the house,” Ansu said while trying to show a picture he took of the aluminium phosphide package. 

(Ansu Kamara, victim’s son displaying a snapshot of the aluminium phosphide his parents bought). Julian Koroma took the photo.

While Isatu Kamara-Cole was resuscitated, her husband met a dire fate. Both victims were said to have exhibited a fit of vomiting and trouble breathing; both indicators are consistent with the symptoms outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC. 

Symptoms of Phosphine gas exposure 

  1. Nausea 
  2. Vomiting 
  3. Diarrhoea 
  4. Abdominal pain 
  5. Gastrointestinal distress 
  6. Trouble breathing 

What to do if you have been exposed to phosphine gas

The American CDC advises that when exposed to phosphine gas, these steps should be taken swiftly;

  1. Remove the patient/victim from the contaminated area. 
  2. Remove all clothing (at least down to their undergarments) and dispose of it hygienically. 
  3. Thoroughly wash with soap and rinse (using cold or warm water).
  4. Move the victims/patients to an area where emergency medical treatment can be provided. 

To understand the professional use and applicability of the aluminium phosphide, DUBAWA interviewed Sylton Moiba, an expert pesticide applicator and the manager of Mr SPRAY, a pest control and cleaning company. 

Sylton said, “we do not use Aluminum phosphide because of its high toxicity and potentially flammable characteristics.” 

Sylton also advised that three days must be observed before inhabiting any enclosure exposed to toxic chemicals like aluminium phosphide. Care should be taken upon applying it to prevent it from being exposed to water.

According to Wiley Online Library, the overall mortality in cases of aluminium phosphide poisoning varies between 30 and 100%. While in other countries, individuals ingest the pellet in an attempt to commit suicide, the mortality rate of the toxic compound in Sierra Leone is primarily due to improper handling or amateur application of the pellets. 

In many countries, the use of aluminium phosphide is banned due to its high fatality rate, while other countries restrict the sale of the chemical compound to licensed pesticide applicators.

Even though Isatu Kamara has been discharged from the hospital, and her son Ansu Kamara has carefully cleaned the house of all aluminium phosphide pellets, Isatu still gets a bit of coughing sometimes. She warns people to be very careful if they use aluminium phosphide. 

Many in Sierra Leone have similar experiences with using aluminium phosphide pellets. Some can barely trace losing a loved one to the use of this toxic compound, as victims mostly complain of stomach pain and consistent vomiting. Reality will only dawn on them when they hear the encounters of others who were fortunate to tell the story of their use of aluminium phosphide pellets. 

Meanwhile, selling this toxic chemical compound in Sierra Leone is rampant, with salespeople having little knowledge of how to apply this product expertly.

This article was produced as part of the Kwame Karikari Fact-Checking and Research Fellowship with DUBAWA. The author is a journalist with the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). 

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