06/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Crying Gas

Almost fifty years ago naturalist Rachel Carson wrote her landmark book Silent Spring, which warned against the danger of "putting poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potential for harm."
Nowadays we worry about the pvcs in our plastic water bottles, mercury in our fish and pesticides on our vegetables, but intelligent people still call pest control when they see a vole or a spider or a mouse.
Last month in Layton, Utah, the Toone family hired Bug Busters to take care of its vole infestation. Voles are tiny rodents that burrow under the snow and party all winter on your lawn, leaving behind a web of runways that kills the grass.
When his first attempt failed, the technician brought out the big guns--aluminum phosphate pellets. He dropped 800 pellets in vole burrows close to the Toone family home and went home for lunch. A few hours later the Toones started experiencing flu-like symptoms. They went to the hospital where their four-year-old daughter Rebecca died and their 15-month-old baby Rachel lay critically ill. Three days later, Rachel died.
It turns out that those pellets released phosphine gas, which was used as a weapon during World War I. Yes, that's right. Developed by the French during the Great War, phosphine gas was more effective than chlorine gas and more lethal than mustard gas.
In 1998 the Environmental Protection agency tried to ban the used of aluminum phosphate, but the tobacco industry, which uses it in their drying sheds to eliminate rodents, fought the ban tooth and nail. Molly Ivins, that sassy sage, wrote at least one column on how the EPA had become toothless under the Bush Adminstration.
Now that the Toone girls' autopsy reports are final, the EPA has found its teeth--kind of. They still haven't banned phosphine, but they just issued new regulations saying it shouldn't be used near homes.
Rachel Carson had it right fifty years ago. Poisons shouldn't be used by fools. The next time you see a spider or a mouse or the damage that a vole has down to your lawn, don't automatically turn to pesticides. You could find yourselves like the Toone family, crying over the death of two babies