AMARILLO, Texas, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- In an effort to rid his family's home of rodents, a father inadvertently exposed his entire family to a deadly gas emitted by a powerful pesticide restricted to professional and industrial use.
Four children died Monday, and their parents and four other siblings were hospitalized, in Texas because of exposure to the lethal gas phosphine, which seeped into the family's manufactured home overnight after it was applied under the home to keep rodents away.
Police said they responded to what they thought was a call for carbon monoxide poisoning but started looking for other causes after encountering an entire family sick in their own home and no evidence of carbon monoxide.
After applying a dry product called Weevil-Cide, Peter Balderas reportedly went back under his home to wash some of it away with water. What he didn't know is that when the chemical is exposed to water, it produces phosphine gas -- which causes respiratory failure.
According to the manufacturer, Weevil-Cide is used to kill insects and rodents in commercial and farm storage areas. Though it is dry, moisture in the air reacts with the product to release the deadly phosphine gas. A label warning strictly prohibits its use within 100 feet of any building occupied by humans, pets or livestock.
"They were already getting an odor and they were trying to suppress the vapors. He didn't know enough about the chemical," Amarillo Fire Department Lt. Josh Whitney, told KFDA-TV. "The chemical is only sold to people that have a license to apply it, and he got this black market. He applied it yesterday, and then so over the night is whenever all the toxic gasses were leeching to inside the house "
Police and paramedics were called to the home after a neighbor stopped by and found the family of 10, parents and eight children, were all sick. By the time paramedics arrived, one of the children was already unconscious and unresponsive.
Police sent the other nine family members to the hospital three more of the children were pronounced dead. Balderas' wife Martha is in critical condition, Peter and their other four children are listed as in stable condition. Two police officers, seven firefighters and a paramedic were also taken to the hospital because of possible exposure to the gas as a precaution, though they showed no signs of exposure.
Police said they still need to verify that phosphine gas exposure caused the four children's deaths, and autopsies are scheduled for Tuesday, but they say the story is a cautionary tale for people who search out the strongest chemical available but aren't properly trained to use them.
"We knew something bad had happened," said James Compton, one of the Balderas' neighbors about seeing the crowd of emergency vehicles and crews. "It's crazy, we had no idea what was going on. It's just sad, it's a sad thing."