Plumstead family displaced from poisoned house
17 October 2011
In the Cape Town suburb of Plumstead stands a house poisoned by the over-application of a pesticide by a fumigation company some 11 months ago. The young Steenkamp family have battled since January this year to get their house restored to a safe and liveable home for their young baby daughter, who was born during May, in the middle of their struggle. To this day Mr Leslie Steenkamp is still suffering from severe and on-going health problems, just like the possible side-effects described on the product label.
Green Times recently visited the poisoned house. After half an hour I had developed a piercing headache and felt nauseous. It was time to go. I could return to fresh air and my safe house, but not this poor family. They are homeless now since December last year and living with family.
In April 2010, the young Steenkam couple bought their first home as a married couple: an old solid house in a good neighbourhood, which could be renovated over time. They received a beetle certificate from Inspecto, a reputable electrical and beetle inspection company, as required for the transfer of a property. The certificate indicated that the house was borer beetle free. This was particularly important to them, as although carpeted, the house had wooden flooring.
Borer beetles beneath the carpets
The couple settled into their home. Towards the end of last year they decided to pull up the carpeting and refurbish the wooden flooring underneath. This was when they discovered that there was in fact a borer beetle infestation. They contacted Inspecto to find out that - in the fine print of the certificate - it was stated that only visible areas were inspected. As carpeted wooden floors were not considered visible, the Steenkamps did not have a claim against them.
The young couple took it on the chin and in December 2010, the house was fumigated to get rid of the beetle infestation. "Mr Aubrey Harris of Pestokil, and his assistant, applied 50 litres of Timberlife CTX 108 liquid product onto the floors, which we had sanded in preparation for treatment. We did not receive any notification, verbally or written about precautions that we should take during or after treatment, nor details about the product they would be using. We were only advised to stay out of the house for one night, as it was indicated that this should be enough to air out the house and return it to its normal state.” claimed Mr Steenkamp. “The application of the pesticide initially started with a hand pump and the pesticide was also sprayed on our walls and ceilings. Later the liquid was poured directly from the original 25 litre containers onto the floors,” said Steenkamp.
His wife Lorryn was 4 months pregnant at the time. As a precaution, they went off on their Christmas vacation straight afterwards, to allow for all the poison to dissipate. They arrived back from leave on January 3 2011 and began to air out the house as directed. Since the smell was still quite severe after a few hours, they spent their first night home at his sister’s house, who fortunately lived nearby. One night turned into a week as the smell seemed to be lingering.
Persistent fumes refuse to leave
After a week, the smell of poison was still prevalent, but they hoped it would dissipate with time, so the Steenkamps moved back into their house. They had to sleep in their spare room, as the smell in the main bedroom was still severe. After 2 weeks, the smell had not dissipated and they became concerned about the effect that the situation could have on their unborn child. Both Leslie and Lorryn were also uncharacteristically suffering from headaches and sinus problems. That was when Lorryn insisted they moved out.
“It was at this point that we contacted Pestokil to remedy the situation, demanding a copy of the product data safety sheet. After analysing the information, it became clear that, based on the floor area in our house that required treatment, Pestokil had over-applied the poison by 666%. When we raised this with Pestokil, they admitted that this was the first time they had used the product Timberlife CTX108, but had used the same application instructions as for their previous product.”
Sand or soil contaminated?
The Product Data sheet listed the ingredients as Synthetic pyrethroid and organosulphur compound. The Steenkamps suspected that the excess liquid poison had seeped through the gaps between the floorboards and the skirting board and had been absorbed by the sand underneath the house, causing the lingering smell. The SA Pest Control Association (SAPCA) regulates the pest control industry, so Leslie contacted them to investigate any potential recourse. “We felt there was gross negligence on the part of Pestokil, which should be of concern to the association.” However, the owner of Pestokil, Mr Aubrey Harris was also the chairman of the Western Cape branch of SAPCA. Mr Mark Enslin of Coopers International, who supplied the product, was also a member of the board!
After complaining to the chairperson of the board, Mr Mark Enslin visited the premises and handed Leslie a Coopers International business card. With him was a delegation of representatives of the association, who were all in some way involved with the assessment or treatment of the borer beetle infestation on these premises, as well as a Mr Tony from Inspecto. The Steenkamps received a letter from SAPCA the next day to say that there was no problem with the pesticide application at this house. The letter was signed by Mr Enslin.
“We were contacted by a representative from Inspecto who wanted to obtain soil samples from our property. We indicated that this would only be possible under legal supervision. Inspecto never took us up on our offer.”
Pestokil suggested they install air bricks on the external walls to assist with ventilation and the dissipation of the smell from any potential sand that had absorbed the poison. This was done. In addition, an ozone purifier was used under the floors for 3 days to assist with the process. The ozone machine helped temporarily while on, but the situation reverted as soon as the machine was stopped. After 2 more weeks of “ventilation”, it became clear that the situation was not improving. It seemed the only resolution would be to remove the “contaminated” sand from under the floorboards. This would be a costly exercise requiring the removal and replacement of the floorboards.
Insurance won’t pay
Due to the anticipated costs of this course of action, the Steenkamps explored any potential claim they could make against their insurance. They came up empty handed. Their short term insurance company would not cover any claims with regard to household goods. Their bond insurance, which insures the structure of the house, would not cover any claims, as the damage was not considered to be “accidental”.
This ongoing battle has left this young family financially, emotionally and physically drained. “Not being able to prepare our home for the arrival of our first child was especially stressful for Lorryn. In addition, I started a new business in January and had prepared my office at home, which I continued to use for 5 months. The time spent on trying to remedy our situation has taken significant man-hours which has resulted in lost business. Perhaps most unsettling for us is that, after spending 5 months in a cattery, we have had to give our two cats up for adoption, as it was not safe for them to be in the house,” said Steenkamp.
Steenkamp has since got in touch with the TATIB Foundation (The Air That I Breathe). This pressure group assists victims of poisonings to get the justice they deserve through appropriate legal knowledge and information.
Whilst poison mongers and fumigators are allowed to get away with such dangerous and irresponsible behaviour, our society is simply not safe. Even disposing of the contaminated soil is a contentious issue – as there is simply no ‘away’ in the closed system of this planet. Whatever we pour onto or into the earth WILL come back to poison us too. Read more...