(CNN)As two Delaware teens recovering from pesticide poisoning struggle to eat, walk and sit up on their own, an investigation into what went wrong highlights failures on several levels, including lax oversight and a history of corruption at the U.S. Virgin Islands government agency in charge of exterminators.
The teens and their parents fell gravely ill and suffered seizures during a March vacation to St. John. The family was exposed to methyl bromide, a restricted-use pesticide. Recovery from their nerve damage has been slow and agonizing for the whole family, but it’s been the worst for the boys. The brothers were in medically induced comas for weeks. They are now conscious, family attorney James Maron said, but they are barely able to move.
Six months after the horrifying incident, their father, Steve Esmond, is slowly getting better as well, but suffers from severe tremors, struggles to speak and can’t turn the pages of a book, Maron said.
“Neurologically, it’s like being in a torture chamber,” Maron said.
Esmond and his boys are mentally “strong as an ox” and “100% cognizant,” but they are trapped in bodies badly damaged by the nerve agent, Maron said.
Prior to the incident, the boys were athletic stars at their schools. The older brother had big prospects playing lacrosse and was already touring colleges.
Their mother, Teresa Devine, had less exposure to the toxic gas than the rest of the family and has made the strongest recovery, but she spends her days and nights keeping vigil over her boys.
“They’re extreme fighters, and that’s why they’re hanging on,” Maron said.
The family was on vacation at the Sirenusa resort on St. John when two employees of the local Terminix fumigated the villa below theirs March 18 with methyl bromide, even though it is not approved for residential use. After the family became ill, the Environmental Protection Agency found traces of the lethal gas in their villa.
The exposure was so significant inside the treated unit that 6 weeks after the family fell ill, dangerous amounts of methyl bromide were still being detected inside the rental villa, according to EPA documents.
Methyl bromide is incredibly toxic to humans, said Dr. Reynold Panettieri Jr., the deputy director for the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology.
“I would say the prognosis, at best, is guarded,” said Panettieri, who has not personally treated the family. “As we know the victims have been off ventilators and they’ve been improved. But if that dose, even though it appeared to be acute, was over (a period of) hours, the damage to the nerves and to the brain itself may render it irreversibly damaged.”
Delaware boys in critical condition after resort illness, possibly from pesticide
Maron said Terminix has agreed to enter mediation, done by Ken Feinberg, who negotiated the settlements for the victims of the September 11 attacks. Mediation begins September 28.
WHAT WENT WRONG
New details are emerging about the incident that so drastically sickened the Esmonds. Six others on the islands had mild symptoms of methyl bromide exposure — headache, fatigue, cough and shortness of breath — after the botched March fumigation of the Sirenusa resort. Four of those were emergency workers who helped the Esmond family, according to the EPA.
CNN has also learned that the day the pesticide was applied, an exterminator tented and taped off the treated area of the resort villa with 6-millimeter plastic that the gas should not have been able to penetrate.
A source familiar with the investigation speculated that the plastic could have come loose, and the chemical perhaps traveled through the air-conditioning system. Even so, methyl bromide should not have been used on a residential building in the first place.
The pesticide manufacturer, Chemtura, told CNN that an odor is supposed to be added to methyl bromide before any use, much like the artificial odor added to natural gas so that people can detect it. But family attorney Maron said no odor was added in this instance. Terminix will not comment on that part of the investigation.
CNN previously reported that methyl bromide was used across the islands on different occasions by Terminix. Other pest control companies on the Virgin Islands were found in possession of methyl bromide and officials said they are checking records to see whether it was used improperly. Ken Mapp, the governor of the Virgin Islands, said it was.
“What these companies did or appear to have been doing is clearly a violation of the law, and they’ll be held accountable for it,” Mapp said. He said he learned his own complex was fumigated with methyl bromide in 2013.