Exterminator owner: 'I would have told the family ... to get out'

Published February 10, 2010 8:46 pm
Pesticide » Bugman operator says use of chemical that may have killed 2 girls wasn't authorized.
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The owner of the company that placed a pesticide believed to have killed two Layton girls said Wednesday he would have warned the family to leave their home had he known what his employee had done.

Rachel Toone, 15 months, died Tuesday at Primary Children's Medical Center. Three days earlier her 4-year-old sister, Rebecca, died at Davis Hospital and Medical Center after she had begun struggling to breathe in the family's home.

Authorities suspect the toxic gas phosphine sickened the family. Investigators say the gas may have entered into the family's home after an exterminator dropped Fumitoxin aluminum phosphide pellets in burrow holes in the lawn Friday to kill small rodents known as voles.

Bountiful-based Bugman Pest and Lawn owner Ray Wilson said his company put out poisoned bait -- not Fumitoxin -- for voles at the Toone home three or four months ago.

When the family called the company again, a technician refilled the bait compartments and determined the infestation was severe, Wilson said.

"On his own, without any direction or consultation with the company, he decided to use Fumitoxin," Wilson said.

Wilson said his company only uses Fumitoxin for gophers and to control wood-eating insects in overseas shipments.

"It's contrary to what I would do," Wilson said of the technician's decision.

The technician placed the pellets alongside a sidewalk leading to the Toone's front porch, coming within about 7 feet of the front door and 3 feet of the garage, according to a hazardous materials cleanup team from the Utah National Guard. Fumitoxin's 29-page manual states it should not be used in burrows that come within 15 feet of a home.

"Had I known that he did that, I would have told the family right away to get out of the house," Wilson said.

There also are questions as to the amount of Fumitoxin used at the Toones' home. A hazardous materials clean-up team with the Utah National Guard said the technician reported using 1½ pounds, but Wilson said the technician recorded on the invoice that 1.2 pounds were used. However, the technician later told Wilson he used a "handful," which would have been about 400 pellets -- closer to half a pound, Wilson said.

The Fumitoxin manual recommends 10 to 20 pellets per burrow. Wilson said he does not know how many vole burrows the technician treated. To record amounts in pounds rather than pellets is also a deviation from company norms.

The technician, 62-year-old Coleman Nocks, is licensed to handle Fumitoxin and has been with the company for two years without any previous problems, said Wilson.

The Utah Department of Agriculture interviewed Nocks on Wednesday as part of its investigation.

Clark Burgess, director of the state's pesticide program, said his team met with Nocks for the first time on Wednesday.

"He was very cooperative," Burgess said. "We know a little more, but we still have to talk with the other agencies" to complete the state investigation.

He also noted that the pesticide office can only determine if a misapplication has occurred, not whether criminal charges are warranted. Layton police Lt. Quinn Moyes said the case remains under investigation and charges have not yet been filed.

Burgess's office has cited Bugman and Nocks in the past two years.

In 2008, Nocks and five other employees received warning letters because they "refused or neglected to keep and maintain [required] records" in a dozen instances. Nocks had failed in two cases to note the amounts of roach-killer he used at a Clearfield home.

All six were put on notice that subsequent violations could lead to a fine of up to $5,000.

In 2009, Nocks faced a $50 fine for two times he had applied insecticides on Ash trees in Ogden without the proper certifications.

Nocks did not immediately return a call Wednesday night requesting a comment.

Wilson said he does not know why Nocks chose Fumitoxin for the Toones' voles, other than the severity of the infestation. He said the company uses Fumitoxin against gophers because gophers tend not to eat poison baits in lethal amounts and leave enough behind to pose a hazard to other animals. Fumitoxin, by contrast, breaks down and dissipates within days and is not hazardous after it is used, Wilson said.

However, he said the technician did not report finding evidence of gophers on the Toones' property.

Nocks is on administrative leave, Wilson said.

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Melinda Rogers contributed to this report.

Pesticide is heavily regulated

Aluminum phosphide is a "restricted-use pesticide" and is available under a variety of labels, including the Fumitoxin suspected in the deaths of Rachel and Rebecca Toone. It is controlled by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Utah Pesticide Control Act.

Only those who are "certified" are permitted to buy it, sell it or use it. To become certified, people and companies must pass several tests. They must be recertified, with additional training or testing, every three years.

In Utah, the Pesticide Program administers the state and federal laws. It oversees 117 dealers, 850 commercial licensees, about 1,000 farmers and 1,500 government appliers.

Every time the pesticide is used, the person applying files a "Fumigant Management Plan" that includes how much will be applied, where, and what protections are in place in the event of an accident. The company is to keep that plan on file and make it available to authorities upon request.

Restricted-use pesticides must be stored under lock and key in a secured area.

Source: EPA Region 8 and Utah Pesticide Program



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