Smoke bomb to control bed bugs. Image Credit: Xpress/Pankaj Sharma

DUBAI: The death of two-year-old Egyptian girl Habiba Hisham due to phostoxin gas poisoning has brought home the horror of highly toxic ‘bombs’ being peddled by rogue pest control staff and untrained cleaners.

Pest control staff who used the banned pesticides in her neighbour’s apartment in Sharjah were arrested along with the tenant of the apartment where 26 capsules of the toxic pesticide were found.

Habiba who suffocated to death on September 2, was the latest in a long list of fatalities due to phostoxin gas poisoning, prompting officials to treat illegal pesticide traders on par with drug dealers.

At least eight phostoxin-related deaths have been reported in the UAE since 2008, including two of the Ajman triplets in March 2010.

An unnown number of people have also been hospitalised.

Mohammad Motahar Hussain, pest management specialist at Dubai Municipality, said cleaning company staff untrained to handle pesticides have been using the fumigants in homes, even though the UAE has banned them for domestic use since 2009.

Authorities have issued numerous warnings about phostoxin, which can be fatal if inhaled. Such warnings have fallen on deaf ears.

Phostoxin contains phosphine gas used to kill pests like mice and other creatures. It is so dangerous that authorities keep a log of every pellet and vial used in Dubai.

“It’s a gas and it kills everything, both pests and human beings. We keep a list of every vial [brought in by about 100 licensed pest-control compaies], when and where it was used,” said Hussain.

“What people use in homes is brought in by illegal traders. They are used by people who are not licensed or trained to handle it.”

Evidence suggests many of these pellets are squirrelled away into a thriving black market.

Due to the threat of jail or deportation, “Yousuf”, an Asian pest-control staff who claims to work for a licensed pest control company, sells aluminium phosphide for home use, but is wary of exposing his trade. “Many of my friends were jailed and deported due to this,” Yousuf told a customer.

The treatment starts by sealing all AC vents, crevices, doors, windows and drains before the pellets are released. In using it, people are willing to risk their lives and those of their neighbours. “They use it in our flat once every three months,” said an Indian labourer, who added they usually spend a night on the terrace or at a friend’s place with their flat sealed for 24 hours after the “bomb treatment”.


Highly effective

Even white-collar customers swear by its effectiveness. “It’s great bang for the buck,” said an executive, who showed a vial left by the illegal pest control guy.

“It works, and is 100 per cent effective. I literally picked up a handful of bugs no amount of conventional pesticide could take down before.”

It costs Dh400 to “bomb” a one-bedroom unit, and a two-bedroom costs about Dh550. The executive said: “Once they are sure you’re a genuine customer, referred by a friend-of-a-friend kind of thing, it’s easy. My guy claims he’s buying it from a Dubai supplier.”

Meanwhile, a senior official has called for tougher regulations. In May, Hisham Yahya, head of Dubai Municipality’s Public Health Pest Control Section, said people using these pesticides should be dealt with “in a similar manner that cocaine traffickers or consumers are dealt with”.

What makes phosphine so deadly is that victims need not be in the vicinity of a treated flat. “In a building with a shared chiller system, this gas can quickly move from one apartment to another through AC vents or ducts,” said a federal environmental expert, who asked not to be named.

In 2010, two of three triplets died after inhaling phostoxin sprayed in a neighbouring flat.

Dinesh Ramachandran, technical director of National Pest Control said, “It is not meant to treat bedbugs but to control stored product insects such as rice weevils, grain beetles, meal moth and wood-boring insects.

“Calling it a ‘bomb’ is a misnomer. Phosphine is a gas and is dangerous. Its use by unlicensed companies or untrained hands and in violation of federal regulations means residents who use it are exposing themselves and their neighbours to this toxic.”


Victims of pesticide poisoning

Sept 2, 2012 - Habiba Hisham (pictured right), a two-year-old Egyptian girl in Sharjah, died six hours after suspected phosphine poisoning. Her six-year-old brother Abdul Rahman was taken to hospital in critical condition.

August 12, 2011 – Raghavendra Shivaji, a 33-year-old Indian died after inhaling phosphine fumes used in a neighbouring flat.

June 21, 2011 – K.M. Suresh, a 26-year-old Indian, was killed following food poisoning caused by pesticide-laden air in their Naif apartment. His roommate Mohanan was also rushed to the hospital but survived.

July 2010 - A security guard was found dead in his room in Al Baraha next to a number of empty vials of phostoxin pellets.

June 2010 – A 23-year-old Indian woman and a Nepalese man, 28, died after inhaling phosphine in the pesticide that was sprayed at a workers’ accommodation in Abu Shagara, Sharjah.

March 2010 – Twelve workers required urgent medical attention after phosphine fumigation in the Sharjah industrial area.

March 2010 - Suhail and Ali, both five-month-old babies, died after a neighbour’s apartment in Ajman was sprayed with pesticide.

June 2008 - An Indian man, 23, died after inhaling pesticide used in his apartment in Abu Dhabi.



Phostoxin is a highly toxic material used to kill pests like mice, squirrels, rats and any other creatures that attack stored grain or seed.

Phosphine – often referred to as ‘bombing’ or ‘gassing’ using phostoxin, fumitoxin, etc — is a fumigant used in insect control for stored grain. The pellets are usually sealed under argon and are pressurised.

Phostoxin tablets contain phosphine gas which is released when the grey pellets come in contact with oxygen. It has been banned in the UAE for household or personal use since 2009.



The US Environmental Protection Agency has cited studies showing that inhalation of phosphine can result in respiratory, neurological and gastro-intestinal effects. Rabbits exposed to phosphine inhalation have suffered from dyspnea, paralysis, convulsions, liver, kidneys and spleen damage. Convulsions may also occur after an apparent recovery.



To control insects in stored products such as rice weevils, grain beetle, meal moth and wood-boring insects.


Outlets normally sealed in a flat when using phospine ‘BOMBS’

1. Air conditioner vents

2. Drainage outlets

3. Doors covered in tape to block any smoke or smell coming out of the flat