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Mother in critical condition after accidental poisoning kills 4 kids

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AMARILLO, Texas — A mother is in critical condition a day after four of her children died and five other family members were sickened by an accidental poisoning under her home in Texas, officials said.

A spokesman for University Medical Center in Lubbock said Martha Balderas, 45, of Amarillo, is in critical condition Tuesday, a day after fire officials responded to the accidental poisoning.

BSA Health System in Amarillo says five patients are at its hospital. They are Balderas’ husband and four of their children, fire officials said.

Poisonous gas was released when a family member used water to wash away pesticide pellets he had placed under the mobile home, authorities said. Fire officials said the three boys, ages, 7, 9 and 11, and a 17-year-old girl, died Monday.

A criminal investigation is underway and being handled by the department’s special crimes unit because children were involved, police spokesman Officer Jeb Hilton said.

A deadly mistake

Amarillo Fire Capt. Larry Davis said Tuesday that the father told first responders he had spread a professional grade pest control pellet under the family’s mobile home.

Authorities later determined that phosphine gas was likely released when the father used a garden hose on Sunday to try to wash away the pesticide.

A professional certification or license is required to purchase the product, called Weevil-Cide, Davis said.

The father does not have that license, and told first responders through an interpreter that he obtained the pesticide from a friend, Davis said.

Clean-up underway

State and federal officials are working on a decontamination plan for the mobile home.

Chip Orton, emergency management coordinator for the city of Amarillo and Potter and Randall counties, said his staff is working with a number of state and federal agencies to decontaminate the home. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has hired a private contractor to help.

Orton says the gas typically casts off in about eight to 12 hours after it’s been in contact with water, but personnel close to the home are wearing protective breathing equipment and hazmat suits as a precaution.

A rare tragedy

Medical experts who specialize in poison control said accidental poisonings from the active ingredient in the pest control substance are not uncommon, but deaths from aluminum phosphide are rare.

Cynthia Aaron, the medical director for the Michigan Regional Poison Control Center at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, said the doctors at the center see mostly adults with exposure issues to phosphine gas from aluminum phosphide because the pesticide is used in industrial shipping.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 82 exposures to aluminum phosphide in 2015 with two deaths.