Poisoned by pesticides


Of all things South Africans fret about, being overwhelmed by toxic gas in their sleep is probably low on the list. But it’s what happened to a Cape Town couple – and their cat probably saved their lives.

One night recently Madeleine Barnard and Cobus van Bosch woke with what they thought were symptoms of gastric flu. Later a noise woke them again and they found Grietjie, their skinny tortoiseshell cat, convulsing under their bed.

They raced to an emergency vet – both of them feeling dazed and disoriented – but the cat died at the clinic. They first suspected food poisoning then remembered a pest-control company had fumigated the neighbouring semi-detached cottage the previous day, using methyl bromide.

The fumigators had failed to warn them, as they should by law, that they should have vacated their cottage for 72 hours after the fumigation. Madeleine and Cobus are still suffering the effects of the toxic substance.

‘‘It’s as though my immune system has been weakened,’’ Madeleine says. ‘‘I’m starting to wonder whether the symptoms will ever go away – some experts say the damage from methyl bromide poisoning can be permanent.’’

Most Western countries have stopped the use of methyl bromide because it’s so dangerous and damaging to Earth’s ozone layer. SA has an agreement with the United Nations to ban its use from 1 January 2010, poisons expert Dr Gerhard Verdoorn says. ‘‘But we and a few other developing countries have been given a postponement until 2015.’’

* Read more about the dangers of pest-contril fumigation in the latest issue of YOU.

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