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Thermos-size, aluminum rat poison canisters washing up on Kodiak

Posted: April 10, 2013 - 11:08pm

KODIAK — Containers used to store rat poison have washed up on one of Kodiak’s beaches, and Island Trails Network is advising people to avoid contact with the empty canisters if any others show up.

The thermos-sized aluminum canisters could contain residual amounts of aluminum phosphide, a toxin used to kill rats and bugs.

When aluminum phosphide is exposed to moisture in the air, it produces phosphine, a poisonous gas that will kill rats or humans, depending on the amount of exposure. When exposed to small amounts of the chemical, people can experience headaches, nausea, dizziness and difficulty breathing.

“The potential for those things to cause a death is certainly realistic,” said Tom Pogson, director of marine programs at ITN. “It’s just that there’s the potential for someone to pick one up that might still have poison in it. It’s the exposure to oxygen and moisture that generates this deadly gas.”

The chemical typically comes in pellets used to fumigate grain ships.

Kodiak resident Ian MacIntosh was beachcombing on Afognak Island the morning of March 31 when he found the two empty rat poison canisters.

“I’d heard of those canisters before,” MacIntosh said. “I didn’t know enough about them that I felt like I should be messing with them. It turns out they are flasks that held the pellets that make the poison gas.”

Pogson said this is the first report of the canisters in Kodiak.

“We expected they should turn up here,” he said. “I didn’t see any during the marine debris sorting.”

From spring 2008 to late 2012, the state of Washington saw more than 100 of the toxic canisters wash up, which prompted the Washington Department of Ecology to start a campaign to create public awareness.

“We have things posted at all our beach accesses that say if you see this canister here is what you do: don’t open it, don’t drink out of it, don’t sniff it,” said Doug Stolz, senior hazardous materials specialist for the Washington Department of Ecology. “It’s not something you want to breathe. It’d probably bring you to your knees pretty quick, but it’s not like one whiff in windy outdoors on a beach and it kills you immediately.”

Stolz said his department did a trajectory analysis with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine where the canisters came from, but were unable to pinpoint the origin.

“We haven’t had a good explanation of why they keep washing up on our beaches,” he said.

The containers have also been found along the coast in Oregon and on Vancouver Island.

ITN is advising people to avoid contact with containers with unknown liquids in them or any gas canisters, propane tanks or rat poison containers. Instead, take pictures, document the location, and report the sighting to ITN at 907-539-1979.

ITN will forward all reports to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which handles hazardous materials.

The DEC is aware of the issue, and is working with its hazardous materials team to prepare public information on how to handle the containers when doing beach cleanups.

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