August 21, 1997

Methyl Bromide Poisoning: A needless tragedy

Sandra Cornwall Mero, a native of Dublin, Ireland, moved to Los Angeles in 1983. An aspiring actress with several television credits, she worked at Alliance Communications, a film distributor. She lived in a cottage in the Toluca Lake district, on a property including several other residential buildings. (Unless otherwise attributed, information about the Mero case is taken from personal communication between her family and friends and Environmental Working Group.)

On Friday, March 7, 1997, a studio in a building near Mero's was fumigated with methyl bromide. Mero returned home that evening. On Sunday night, her landlord found her on the floor of the cottage, comatose and having convulsions. At St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, her illness was a mystery until her landlord remembered the fumigation. The landlord then learned that at some prior time, seven 1-to-2-inch underground conduits had been installed to carry wiring between the studio and Mero's cottage.

The owner of the company that carried out the fumigation of the studio said the building was inspected before fumigation and was completely enclosed with a tent as required by law. (Berry 1997). Mero's friends insist no tent was used. But a tent would not have prevented the gas from drifting into the cottage through the pipes, which the fumigator said he did not see because they were hidden by a chair.

At the hospital, Mero's blood was tested for methyl bromide poisoning. Although a family member was quoted as saying doctors found 27 parts per million of methyl bromide (Berry 1997), the standard blood test measures levels of bromine, a breakdown product of methyl bromide. No definitive lethal level of bromine in blood has been established.

After Mero spent 17 days in a coma, her family was advised that she had no brain function and life support was terminated. The coroner's office lists the official cause of death as methyl bromide poisoning (Los Angeles County 1997).