The two girls who died after being poisoned by pesticides: Abigail, right, and Yael, left.
The two girls who died after being poisoned by pesticides: Abigail, right, and Yael, left.
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Olivier Fitoussi
Members of the Environmental Protection Ministry's Hazmat team at the scene in Jerusalem. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi

Two young girls died on Wednesday after their family’s Jerusalem apartment was sprayed for pest control. Their two older brothers were hospitalized in very serious condition and their parents were in good condition.

The entire building was evacuated, and will remain empty for at least another day. Police detained the exterminator for questioning.

At 11 A.M. Wednesday a Magen David Adom ambulance was dispatched to an apartment on Hashahal Street in the capital. The responders found the six members of the Gross family in states ranging from woozy to unconscious: the parents, both in their thirties; the two boys, aged 5 and 7; and two girls, one, Abigail, aged 4 years, the other, Yael, 18 months. After determining that the family appeared to have been poisoned by pesticides that were sprayed in the home on Monday, Magen David Adom officials contacted police and the Environmental Protection Ministry’s hazardous materials unit.

The two girls died soon afterward. All six family members were taken to the nearby Shaare Zedek Medical Center, but the boys were later transferred to Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva. As of Tuesday night they remained in serious to critical condition, sedated and on respirators.

Tablets of Phostoxin – a brand name for aluminum phosphide, a pesticide that releases a poisonous gas, phosphine, when exposed to moisture – were found in the apartment. The tablets have been sent for laboratory testing.

According to Eli Lugassi, a manager with Israel's Pest Control Operators Association, such a gas requires all residents remain outside the home for at least 10 days after, and may only be used in private homes that are isolated.

Aluminum phosphide is primarily used as an agricultural pesticide. Dr. Elihu Richter of Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Hospital, an expert on poisons, said that phosphine gas attacks the central nervous system, much as military nerve gases do. It can be absorbed either by inhalation or through the skin. The Environmental Protection Ministry, which supervises pesticides, said the substance used in the apartment has been approved in principle for home use, but only in smaller quantities and at lower concentrations than are permissible for agricultural use. It is now examining whether the exterminator used the substance properly.

The extermination took place on Monday. According to the parents, the exterminator sealed the room he sprayed to prevent the material from going into the other rooms. But on Tuesday, one of the girls began to feel ill and started throwing up. Her parents took her to a clinic, but she was released with no real treatment. On Wednesday morning, her situation worsened sharply, as did that of her three siblings.

“We came to the apartment and found a girl of about 2 who wasn’t breathing,” related paramedic Yisrael Cohen. “As we were trying to resuscitate her, they told us there were another three children who didn’t feel well, and they told us about the extermination. We found the children in various states of consciousness, from fully conscious to inert, and they were sent to the hospital in a single ambulance. We took the girl while still trying to resuscitate her.

“En route, we tried to understand what substance had been used, because there weren’t any recognizable signs of organic phosphates. Moreover, in contrast to other substances with which we’re familiar, the children continued getting worse en route to the hospital and even after we arrived. That’s not behavior we’re familiar with.”

After the family had been evacuated, firefighters arrived and evacuated everyone from the apartment building, as well as from the school next door. They then worked to get rid of the pesticide.