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May 11, 2014 | by  | in Homepage News |
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Eva Engler

Eva Engler, a German Master’s student on a scholarship to Victoria, moved into University accommodation, room 6 at 41 Salamanca Rd, in February 2013.

The University-run house she moved into had been treated on 11 January for fleas, using KB40, an insecticide, as well as Starycide, an insect growth regulator. KB40 is a highly concentrated insecticide which contains high levels of very small particles of beta-cyfluthrin. It is classified as a hazardous substance and can only be bought by people with an Approved Handler Certificate.

On 25 February, shortly after moving in, Eva emailed the University Hall management saying that her room was full of “white animal hair, fleas and blue fuzz.” She vacuumed the room for “quite a long time” as the room had not been cleaned after the flea treatment. University Hall management apologised for “this huge oversight on our part”, and credited Eva with the cost that cleaners would have charged to vacuum the room.

Two weeks later, on 11 March, Eva went to Student Health with complaints about pain in her knees. According to the doctor’s reports, Eva had been a “keen runner”, regularly running 12 km up to four times a week, but had found herself unable to run since coming to New Zealand. The doctors could find no injury or explanation for her pain. Eva’s health continued to deteriorate, with a “permanent cough” and worsening knee pain, as well as tingling, twitching and sharp pains across her body and extreme tiredness. She also found that her eyes were very irritated and she was unable to focus.

Eva’s health became so bad that she was flown back to Germany in August 2013 under paramedic supervision, giving up her scholarship and Master’s study. Doctors in Germany were unable to diagnose Eva’s symptoms until November, when the breakdown metabolites of beta-cyfluthrin (the active ingredient in KB40) were detected in Eva’s urine.

The level of beta-cyfluthrin – 1.2 μg/l – in Eva’s urine was described by her German doctor, Dr Peter Ohnsorge, head of the German Professional Association of Environmental Medicine and the European Academy for Environmental Medicine, as “all the more alarming, because there has been no more contact with these substances for some time, and it is known that the metabolism is no longer detectable in the urine within 24 hours.”

The half-life of beta-cyfluthrin means that, when it is used at approved levels, traces disappear from urine within 24 hours. Dr Ohnsorge concluded that “extensive further examinations” had found no other cause for Eva’s health issues, and that Eva’s pain and physical therapy will continue for the next four years.

The KB40 Safety Data Sheet describes the substance as harmful if inhaled, harmful to terrestrial vertebrates, and says it “may cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure.” It describes the potential symptoms of ingesting the substance as: “burning sensations in the mouth, headache, dizziness, drowsiness, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, listlessness, stomach pain, muscular twitching of arms or legs.”

It also says that effects from inhalation of high vapour concentrations can cause effects similar to that of ingestion. Prolonged exposure “may result in central nervous-system effects such as tremors, uncoordination and disorientation.”

The University has denied any wrongdoing. The pest-management company hired by the University to treat the house say that they sprayed the house using KB40 diluted at 10mL/litre, using 15 litres (thus 150mL of KB40) across the house, which is standard. They say that KB40 is a “low-toxicity low-odour synthetic pyrethroid with short residuals”, and that the house was safe to re-enter four hours after being sprayed.

Jenny Bentley, Director of Campus Services, told Salient that the University has checked that the flea treatment used complied with all New Zealand requirements.

“The University responded to a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment request relating to this issue late last year. That investigation has now been closed. It is deeply distressing that the student has suffered such a severe setback to her studies, and staff at the University have kept in contact and offered support for the student’s return.”

However, Eva says that her flatmate was supposed to move into room 6, the room that she eventually moved into, but that it was too full of fleas. She says that nobody was permitted to enter the house for around two weeks after the house was treated by exterminators, and that room 6 was inaccessible for even longer, which lead to her flatmate living elsewhere and thus not moving into room 6. Eva said that her flatmate also experienced some tingling symptoms. Salient has so far been unable to contact this flatmate to corroborate these allegations.

Eva believes that her room not being cleaned after KB40 was applied, and the resulting need for her to “vigorously vacuum-clean”, had led to her inhaling high quantities of beta-cyfluthrin. Her toxicologists can find no other explanation for the high quantity of beta-cyfluthrin which remains in her system. Eva remains in a great deal of pain, and faces four years of rehabilitation.


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