Two-year-old Yael Gross and her four-year-old sister Avigail died Wednesday, as their sixand eight-year-old brothers Michael and Yitzhak clung to life on respirators after being exposed to a powerful chemical agent used by an exterminator in their Jerusalem home one day earlier.
According to police, the parents of the young family of six, who were also hospitalized, awoke in horror in their Givat Mordechai home Wednesday morning upon finding their four children deathly ill.
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“The mother called MDA [Magen David Adom] at approximately 11 a.m. reporting a pungent odor and saying the whole family became dizzy and nauseas the previous night,” said Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. “She said in the morning the children appeared extremely sick.”
“The children’s medical situation rapidly deteriorated,” he added.
First responder Shmuel David, a senior MDA paramedic, said when he arrived at the scene he first found the four-year-old lying unconscious on the floor. No pulse was detected.
“We immediately began attempting to resuscitate her,” said David. “Additional paramedics arrived and were alerted by a family member to other children in the apartment who were feeling ill.”
The paramedics then found the youngest child semiconscious in another room, her condition quickly worsening.
The eldest siblings were also semiconscious but not as sick, David said.
All six were rushed to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and the entire building was evacuated, he added. The youngest child died shortly after arriving. Her sister died a few hours later.
Their two brothers remain in critical condition and have been transported to Schneider Children’s Medical Center for Israel in Petah Tikva, where they have been connected to respirators, a hospital representative said Wednesday night.
Both parents, in their 30s, were lightly injured by the chemicals and are expected to recover, the official said.
The exterminator in question was arrested hours later, as police continue to investigate the circumstances of the poisoning. However, Rosenfeld said Wednesday night that no foul play is expected.
“We believe this was a tragic accident,” he said. “I don’t think there is any indication here of a criminal or terrorist act.”
Wednesday afternoon, Shaare Zedek’s deputy director Ovadia Shemesh said it was determined that phosphine, an insecticide, was the cause of death.
Acute exposure results in headaches, dizziness, fatigue, drowsiness, vomiting, coughing, labored breathing, chest tightness, pulmonary irritation and convulsions, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
In its purest form phosphine is nearly odorless, however the commercial grade of the chemical used in fumigation carries a pungent smell, similar to rotting fish.
“The substance can be used as a pesticide as long as strict safety procedures are followed,” Shemesh told Channel 2.
“What we’re dealing with is someone, probably a professional, who distributed the poison in an enclosed room two days ago.”
Shemesh said the family experienced side effects of the poison, including diarrhea and vomiting, Tuesday night.
He added that there is no known medicinal cure for inhalation of the chemical, which he said was used in the August Syrian gas attack that took over 1,000 lives.
“There is no medication available to treat poisonings like this,” he said. “We treat patients exposed to the substance with oxygen treatments and fluid regimens to help the body stabilize. We are talking about the same poison that was used in the Syrian chemical weapons attacks.”
The doctor said that while he has treated cases of phosphine exposure in the past, he had “never [seen] something as tragic as this.”
According to Beterem, the National Center for Children’s Safety and Health, children are most vulnerable to pesticide until the age of four. Statistics during the last four years show that 75 percent of children up to age 17 who suffered pesticide poisoning were younger than five.
Most of the cases occurred in the home, courtyard or garden, Beterem said. Because babies take 40 breaths a minute, compared to an average of 16 breaths a minute by adults, exposure to such chemicals can be fatal.
The tragedy comes less than 48 hours after a family of three was killed early Monday morning in their Gilo apartment following a neighbor’s gas explosion.
Avraham and Galit Tufan, ages 56 and 42 respectively, and their two-year-old son, Yosef Haim, were killed instantly in their third-floor apartment by the 1:30 a.m. blast.
The Supergas technician who visited their apartment less than a half hour before the explosion was arrested hours later, but was subsequently released from custody Tuesday night by a Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court judge.
The Tufan family was buried in a private ceremony Tuesday.
Judy Siegel contributed to this report.