One day when we left our apartment shortly after to moving to Saudi Arabia, we were engulfed by a thick misty smoke-like fog. I suddenly couldn't breathe. I quickly covered my mouth and nose with my scarf. My husband was furious as he knew all too well what it was. A resident of the building we lived in had likely called the city or some extermination company to spray for annoying insects and pests.
On any given day, many parts of the city of Jeddah are consumed with a dense and dangerous haze of insecticides that can send people to the hospital with respiratory problems or worse. People have reported that some places are fogged with pesticides twice a day (morning and night), others twice a week, and some maybe only twice a year.
Municipalities in many areas of Saudi Arabia routinely spray insecticides most often without warning. Entire blocks will suddenly become engulfed in toxic mists of poisonous fumes. Many people have ended up in the emergency rooms of local hospitals. A friend of mine recently reported that her entire family fell ill when the Baladiya (municipality) switched from its usual type of insecticide to a different stronger one used to control mosquitoes. Fortunately the family sought treatment at a hospital emergency room and they are all okay, but others haven't been so lucky.
Even though there are bans in Saudi Arabia on certain types of pesticides which contain toxic chemicals, in particular aluminum phosphide, products containing it can still be purchased or brought into the country fairly easily. These particular products are not intended for personal or home use and are frequently sold to untrained civilians who improperly use it inside homes with often times deadly results - and all too often small children are the victims.
Apparently when humidity or moisture makes contact with aluminum phosphide, a dangerous gas called phosphine is produced. Symptoms of phosphine poisoning can include difficulty in breathing, dizziness, headache, numbness, lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea. Just a few hours of exposure to the toxic gas can result in death within 24 hours.
I remember reading about the tragic deaths in February 2009 of two young Danish children living in a compound here in Jeddah after inhaling the toxic fumes of an industrial grade pesticide while they slept. There have been many other similar tragedies. During a period of about one year and a half between late 2007 to early 2009, more than a dozen deaths occurred in Saudi Arabia, mostly children, from deadly insecticide poisoning. Two Ethiopian boys died in January 2009. Two Saudi children in September 2008. A Filipino woman in October 2007. An Afghani teenage girl in Jeddah in March 2014. Three Pakistani children in Madinah in September 2008. Two Egyptiangirls in August 2007. An entire Pakistani family of six living in Riyadh died at the hands of their careless upstairs neighbor in July 2007 when he poured toxic pesticide down his drain, poisoning and killing the whole family below. Countless more have been hospitalized over the years - and it continues to this day.
The problem of the misuse of aluminum phosphide / phosphine gas is so alarming that a film documentary called “Phosphine” was produced in 2014 with the cooperation of Saudi public health authorities in an attempt to educate the public of the dangers of using this lethal type of toxic substance. I have embedded the film here for you below. It is in Arabic but with English subtitles. It has been viewed almost 5 million times. Hopefully it will reach enough people to make a difference so these unnecessary tragedies will be avoided.
One of the most disturbing themes of the documentary was how the families of the victims were dismissed so easily with the logic that it was God's will that their loved ones died. This lack of taking responsibility is the prevalent attitude toward death in Saudi Arabia and justifies careless unnecessary deaths when taking small preventative measures would have saved lives. For example, most people here still do not use seat belts and don't use car seats for babies. Instead, mamas continue to hold babies in their arms in the front passenger seat and when there is an accident and baby dies because it became a human projectile crashing through the windshield, they say it was God's will.
I realize there are health concerns, what with dengue fever and the Zika virus, and this is why the municipality regularly sprays as a preventative measure, however shouldn’t the public be made aware of what type of chemicals are being used and given proper warnings prior? Some people have reported their animals dying as a result of spraying. Simple activities like walking or jogging must be curtailed due to these trucks coming around and spraying. People can literally taste it in the air! Some have been suddenly enveloped in the smoky fog while walking to the grocery store. What are the dangers, the neurological effects, and other health risks after repeated exposure to these chemicals? Don’t we citizens have a right to know?