The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the territory’s Planning and Natural Resources Department are investigating what appears to be chemical poisoning by a pesticide that affected four members of a vacationing family from Wilmington, Del., according to representatives from both agencies. On Monday the EPA and DPNR both identified the pesticide as methyl bromide.
According to an EPA press release, methyl bromide may have been used March 18 to fumigate rooms at Sirenusa, a condominium resort overlooking Cruz Bay.
The use of methyl bromide in the United States is restricted due to its acute toxicity, the EPA indicated. Only certified applicators are allowed to use it in certain agricultural settings. It is not authorized for use in dwellings.
Health effects of acute exposure to methyl bromide are serious and include central nervous system and respiratory system damage, according to the EPA.
“Pesticides can be very toxic and it is critically important that they be applied properly and used only as approved by EPA,” said Judith A. Enck, EPA regional administrator. “Protecting people’s health in the U.S. Virgin Islands is of paramount importance.”
“The EPA is actively working to determine how this happened and will make sure steps are taken to prevent this from happening to others at these vacation apartments or elsewhere,” Enck said.
The EPA indicated it us continuing to work with the local government and others to gather information and will ensure that appropriate steps are taken if it determines any environmental regulations or laws were violated.
Jamal Nielsen, spokesman for DPNR, declined to name the company that applied the pesticide but said it was a St. Thomas company.
The affected family members were identified in an email from Tatnall School and by The News Journal newspaper in a Delaware as Tatnall School middle school head Steve Esmond, his wife Theresa Devine, and their two children.
“They were suffering seizures,” according to Ronnie Klingsberg, who is the public information officer at St. John Rescue.
Klingsberg said Rescue and Emergency Medical Services transported the four from Sirenusa to the Liston “Huntie” Sprauve ambulance boat and on to St. Thomas on March 20. They were met at the V.I. National Park dock in Red Hook by two ambulances stationed at Roy L. Schneider Hospital.
Esmond family friend Mark Harvath said Steve Esmond was airlifted to a Delaware hospital, with the others treated at Schneider.
Darice Plaskett, the hospital’s chief nursing officer, said confidentiality concerns prevent the hospital from releasing the specifics, but she said “individuals” from St. John were admitted and treated at the hospital.
“Several were transferred off-island,” she said.
The Delaware News Journal reported in its online newspaper on Monday that all four were airlifted back to the mainland through assistance from Delaware Sen. Chris Coons. Coons’ office would only confirm that Coons and the Esmonds were friends.
David Adams, who manages Sirenusa for Sea Glass Vacation, said his company was waiting to hear back from the government agencies that are investigating the issue. He said he couldn’t answer any further questions.
The suspected chemical poisoning is now a topic on Internet travel forums. Tourism Department spokesman Luana Wheatley said the department is making every effort to be in touch with the family and is deploying its customer care staff member to assist.
“We are sorry about this unfortunate situation,” she said.
Editor’s Note: This story has been amended.