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.
I recently visited the poisoned house in Cathren Road with the owner, Mr Steenkamp. After a quick peep inside, we sat down in the garden, where he told me his story. Gradually I became aware of a burning throat. 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 Steenkamp was present on the day that the house was treated with a chemical called CTX 108.
‘Mr Aubrey Harris and his assistant of Pestokil applied 50 litres of the 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.’
Pouring poisons liberally
‘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 Mr 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 Aubre 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!
Delegation is all involved
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 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.’
No place to stay
Now the Steenkamps had to find alternative accommodation. They communicated this to Pestokil, who indicated that they would pay for their accommodation. Quotes were submitted as well as a request for them to pay the necessary deposit. This was never forthcoming. As Leslie and Lorryn could not afford to pay for accommodation themselves, they moved into her mother’s house, where they are still living to this day.
Now what to do about the house? 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.’
It was suggested that they contact a forensic expert to assist with their claim against Pestokil. In particular, they were advised to contact Dr David Kaltzow in this regard. It is a requirement for companies operating a pest control business, to have public liability insurance. Pestokil indicated that they were covered by Santam.
Leslie organised a meeting between himself, his legal representative, Pestokil, Santam and David Klatzow on 2 March 2011. At the meeting, the representative from Santam, Mrs Beatrix Keene from MVO Konsultante (Santams outsourced assessors) indicated that Santam would only process the claim if the soil proves to be contaminated. It was agreed that the level of contamination was not the issue, but whether or not there was contamination.
‘Dr David Klatzow indicated to Mrs Keene that soil testing was a costly process (approximately R50 000). Ms Keene responded that if the soil was proven contaminated, Santam would pay for the testing as part of the claims settlement.’
Steenkamp embarked on obtaining forensic soil sampling by Dr David Klatzow. As part of the testing they also received an analysis from an e-nose machine, which is new technology that measures the extent of odour. They also contacted an environmental waste management company as the soil, if contaminated, would require treatment and dumping at a hazardous waste site.
A representative from Wasteman took independent soil samples, which indicated that the soil was contaminated and required removal and treatment with lime, before being transported and dumped at the Vissershok hazardous waste site. Apart from replacing the soil and the floors, the fumes from the poison had also been absorbed by fabric. A number of household furnishings therefore also required replacement as part of the claim.
In April a claim was submitted to Santam’s independent assessor. Keene conducted a site visit to verify the contents of the claim and submitted her report to Santam during May.
No go from insurance again
The Steenkamps were contacted by Santam later that month- the day after the birth of their daughter – with the news that their claim would not be processed, as Pestokil did not have liability insurance cover.
During the course of this debacle, Steenkamp had been in contact with Santam representatives on numerous occasions, as well as Pestokil’s insurance brokers, Africa First.
‘They had committed to paying out the claim once it was established that contamination had taken place. It was just the amount that needed to be decided upon,’ said Steenkamp.
This was the first time they heard that Pestokil did not have liability insurance. Steenkamp contacted the insurance ombudsman, but were told that as they were a 3rd party in the claim, this route was not open to them.
Justice through the courts?
Seeking legal advice was the Steenkamps last resort, so they submitted an urgent court interdict to liquidate Pestokil in order to obtain the amount required to repair the property. A court date was scheduled for 13 February 2012.
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.
Fortunately The Green Times and other newspapers reported on the poisonings which took place at the V&A Waterfront. Steenkamp read about this in a weekend newspaper and so 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.
Detailed information is key
TATIB asked Timberlife for the Material Safety Data Sheets, the Product Label and the names of the active ingredients, as all they could find on their website was the Product Data sheet. This listed the ingredients as synthetic pyrethroid and organosulphur compound, but did not give their actual names. When the details were not forthcoming, they served a PAIA (public access to information) Application on Timberlife, Timberlife’s attorneys and then also on the National Dept of Agriculture.
Timberlife and their attorneys have refused to furnish TATIB with the information, however the National Dept of Agriculture did send them the Product Label. This product contained Cypermethrin (synthetic pyrethroid), TCMTB: 2-(thiocyanomethylthio) benzothiazole (organosulphur compound) and Aliphatic and aromatic petroleum solvents (Fluidar 100 and others)
According to TATIB it has now also come to light that CTX 108 contains Fluidar100, which in turn contains Benzene. Note the highlighted warnings on the product label for Fluidar 100.
How to heal now?
As Mr Steenkamp was compelled to run his business from an outside room attached to the house, his health had deteriorated over the months. He got in touch with the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health Research at the School of Public Health and Family Medicine in the Health Sciences Faculty and is under medical treatment, suffering from severe and debilitating headaches and short term memory loss.
Green Times has been in touch with Pestokil, Timberlife, the department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the SAPCA and Santam and will publish their responses next week.
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.
By Elma Pollard