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Deaths Associated with Exposure to Fumigants in Railroad Cars -- United States

Multiple incidents of illness and death following exposure to fumigated agricultural products in railroad cars have been reported by several states along the U.S.-Mexico border. From 1989 through 1993, the Texas Department of Health identified three incidents involving 11 exposed persons, resulting in two deaths. The California Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Pesticide Regulation, recorded two deaths in fumigated boxcars in 1989. This report summarizes the two most recent fatal incidents. Case 1

On September 18, 1993, during routine inspection of a train 450 miles east of El Paso, Texas, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Border Patrol agents discovered four males (aged 12, 35, 39, and 52 years) in a hopper car containing loose bulk lima beans. These persons entered the rail car in El Paso through an unlocked top hatchway at approximately 7 a.m. While in the rail car, the men opened the hatch door as fresh air was needed, then closed it. They fell asleep and were discovered by border patrol agents at 11 p.m.

When found, the three men were ill, and the 12-year-old was dead. The men reported nausea, vomiting, headache, and abdominal discomfort. The cause of death for the 12-year-old was listed as asphyxiation after inhalation of phosphine gas. No autopsy was conducted.

One man was available for follow-up interview; he reported that he did not see any signs on the rail car that warned of pesticide use. According to border patrol reports, warning signs on the rail car indicated the beans had received routine fumigation with aluminum phosphide. Case 2

On March 29, 1989, the body of a 23-year-old man was discovered in a rice-filled rail car as it was unloaded in Maxwell, California. Autopsy results revealed phosphine in tissue samples. On March 17 in Houston, aluminum phosphide pellets had been deposited in the loaded railroad car. The rail car had been sealed with plastic and warning signs had been posted. Rips discovered in the plastic during unloading indicated that the car had been entered after fumigation.

Reported by: D Perrotta, PhD, T Willis, D Salzman, J Borders, Bur of Epidemiology, Texas Dept of Health. L Mehler, MD, Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program, Worker Health and Safety Br, California Environmental Protection Agency. Health Studies Br, Div of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects, National Center for Environmental Health; Surveillance Br, Div of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Fumigant pesticides routinely are used to protect grains and legumes from insect damage during transport and storage. Before 1986, carbon tetrachloride and carbon disulfide mixtures were the primary fumigants used during rail transport. When these products were banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (1,2), fumigation using phosphorus and sulfur compounds increased. Aluminum phosphide, which is highly insecticidal (3), has been used increasingly by the grain industry (4). Aluminum phosphide pellets, deposited into a loaded boxcar, react with moisture in the grain to create the toxic gas phosphine; the reaction can occur within 5 minutes (2). The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires that, after a loaded car is fumigated, it should remain out of transit for 48 hours. Once the gas completely dissipates, the food product is nontoxic (5).

Fumigants, such as aluminum phosphide, can liberate toxic gases that are rapidly absorbed through the respiratory tract (6). Symptoms may begin immediately and can include fatigue, headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, cough, and shortness of breath. Acute poisoning, such as occurs after inhalation of phosphine, can lead to pulmonary edema, central nervous system depression, toxic myocarditis, and circulatory collapse (3). Aluminum phosphide cannot be detected in blood or urine (7). Treatment is symptomatic and supportive. Long-term effects may include genotoxicity (1).

Both the DOT * and EPA (8) publish guidelines for placement of warning signs on transport vehicles or freight containers that have been fumigated or treated with poisonous substances. These guidelines vary regarding the size and placement of the sign and the wording, graphic symbols, and languages used on the sign. Carriers may conform to either agency's set of regulations and guidelines. DOT is reviewing its regulations for potential updating.

Surveillance for pesticide poisoning is complicated by lack of uniform reporting guidelines and difficulty in attributing specific adverse health outcomes to pesticide exposure. Although 25 states require that illnesses caused by pesticides be reported, few actively solicit and follow up case reports (10). The Texas case report was detected through the Sentinel Event Notification System for Occupational Risk (SENSOR) program of CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) **. Texas mandates reporting of only occupationally related pesticide exposures; persons who apply fumigants, agricultural workers, and grain inspectors may be exposed to high levels of fumigants. Nonoccupational exposures, such as in this report, can be reported to the Texas Department of Health; nonoccupational exposures and fatalities (9) may occur during residential application by unlicensed personnel or following improper disposal of fumigation pellets. California mandates that physicians report all illnesses caused by pesticides to local health officers.

Deaths resulting from illegal entry into fumigated rail transport cars have not been reported previously. The incidents described here underscore the potential for state-based surveillance systems to identify new problems that require corrective measures. Appropriately placed, highly visible warning signs printed in English and other languages that incorporate symbols may have prevented these deaths. Other prevention measures should include adequate locking for all points of entry on rail cars.


  1. Garry VF, Griffith J, Danzl TJ, et al. Human genotoxicity: pesticide applicators and phosphine. Science 1989;246:251-5.

  2. Zaebest DD, Blade LM, Burroughs GE, Morrelli-Schroth P, Woodfin WJ. Phosphine exposure in grain elevators during fumigation with aluminum phosphide. Applied Industrial Hygiene 1988;3:146-54.

  3. Jayaraman KS. Death pills from pesticide. Nature 1991;353:377.

  4. Alavanja MC, Rush GA, Stewart P, Blair A. Proportionate mortality study of workers in the grain industry. J Natl Cancer Inst 1987;78:247-52.

  5. Worthing CR, ed. The pesticide manual: a world compendium. 7th ed. In: The British Crop Protection Council. Suffolk, England: Lavenham Press Limited, 1983.

  6. Morgan DP. Recognition and management of pesticide poisonings. 4th ed. Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency, 1989; publication no. EPA-540/9-88/001.

  7. Feldstein A, Heumann M, Barnett M. Fumigant intoxication during transport of grain by railroad. J Occup Med 1991;33:64-5.

  8. US Environmental Protection Agency. Guidance for the reregistration of pesticide products containing aluminum or magnesium phosphide as the active ingredient. Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency, 1986; report no. 540/RS-87-109.

  9. Wilson R, Lovejoy FH, Jaeger RJ, Landrigan PL. Acute phosphine poisoning aboard a grain freighter. JAMA 1980;244:148-50.

  10. US General Accounting Office. Pesticides on farms -- limited capability exists to monitor occupational illnesses and injuries: report to the chairman, Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, US Senate. Washington, DC: US General Accounting Office, December 1993; report no. GAO/PEMD-94-6.

* CFR parts 172.201, 172.510, 173.9, and 49 CFR chapter 1 (10-1-92 Edition). 

** SENSOR is a program of cooperative agreements between NIOSH and state health departments to develop generalizable models for state-based occupational health surveillance. Fourteen states have been awarded cooperative agreements to develop surveillance systems for 12 conditions.

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