Suspicion is growing that pesticides used to fumigate rooms in this tropical paradise may be responsible for several of the deaths—but not all of them.
About 2,000 miles away from the Dominican Republic, in a little town in New Mexico, one of the world’s authorities on criminal poisoning is following the mysterious deaths and illnesses of Americans on that Caribbean island—and he, like others, is alarmed.
Six apparently healthy, middle-aged tourists from the United States have abruptly dropped dead in hotel rooms on their dream vacations in the D.R. since June 2018. Others have fallen seriously ill—all from what could be deadly pesticides.
More people are coming forward to say their loved ones died in the D.R. under strange circumstances in the past year, including real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, who said on Wednesday her otherwise healthy brother passed away at a resort there in April, supposedly of a heart attack.
Confusing the issue are a recent series of apparently random acts of violence in the D.R. that aren’t connected to the hotel room deaths.
Mexico, Jamaica and the Seychelles have made headlines in recent years after tourists said they were assaulted and/or robbed, often after being drugged with tainted alcohol. But the Dominican Republic, almost overnight, has gone them one better with chilling accounts that could be out of a Stephen King novel or an Agatha Christie mystery.
“I’ve been watching these incidences and they’re very odd,” says John Trestrail, a forensic and clinical toxicologist who headed a major hospital poison center for 32 years, was an FBI consultant, and now runs the Center for the Study of Criminal Poisoning in Los Lunos, New Mexico. Among the many cases about which he has been consulted in the past: the poisoning of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother at the Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017.
Speaking of the Dominican Republic incidents, Trestrail told The Daily Beast, “The tough part is trying to figure it out from so far away. What’s most troubling are the people who die together at the same time from the same symptoms. You first think carbon monoxide poisoning, but this doesn’t fit that. I keep hearing that the victims’ lungs were filled with fluids. So I think, OK, how about organophosphate pesticides?
Organophosphates and phosphine from aluminum phosphide are lethal chemicals used for, among other things, hotel room fumigation. They’re not always regulated in developing countries and accidental poisonings involving humans are thought to be a serious, although underreported problem, especially on the Indian subcontinent. They’ve been mentioned only rarely in connection with suspicious deaths of tourists and others around the world in recent years, but it is troubling that there is little transparency, awareness or accountability about their use.
The U.S. has controlled pesticides more stringently than many other countries for decades. But last spring Dow Chemical, which contributed $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inauguration festivities, asked the government to dismiss a study indicating that three organophosphates used in the U.S. were harmful to every endangered species studied. Obama-era regulators were poised to issue new limits on how organophosphate pesticides could be used. But that’s on hold now that Trump has asked for a two-year delay to review the study and determine whether to set new limits or not.
Organophosphates were first developed before World War II and later developed by the Nazis for use as possible chemical weapons. They come in a variety of insecticides, herbicides, nerve agents (like VX) and flame retardants. Weevil-Cide, which contains aluminum phosphide, was believed the cause of an apparent accidental poisoning that left four children dead in Amarillo, Texas, in 2017.