Following a chain of unexplained deaths in Thailand

Over the past few years, multiple people have died in Thailand from what appears to be exposure to some kind of poison. Most of these people have been tourists. And most of them have been young women. The deaths have happened in clusters. Five or so on the island vacation hotspot of Kho Phi Phi. Another group of six at Chiang Mai's Downtown Inn.

Lots of possible explanations have been suggested — ranging from serial killers, to hallucinogenic beach drinks, to overuse of banned insecticides in hotel rooms. But, so far, none of the specific poisons proposed as the culprit totally makes sense in relation to the deaths. And, to make things worse, it seems like Thai authorities are doing their best to make it difficult to actually investigate what has happened in individual cases, and figure out whether the cases are linked or not. At this point, it's hard to even know whether all the people who have died exhibited the same symptoms.

Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who has done a lot of reporting on poisons and true crime has been following this story and just published another piece on the still-unfolding mess.

Your daughter died.

Your daughter died thousands of miles from home. In a hotel where no one came to help. In a hospital where she struggled to keep breathing and just couldn’t. In a room where her heart – and somehow you still don’t really believe this – just stuttered to a stop. In a country, where authorities have failed for months, years even, to tell you how or why your daughter died.

Your daughter, you’ve come to realize, died in a pattern that links too many other young women, a chain of suspected poisonings over the last few years. Jill St. Onge, 27, of Seattle, Washington, and Julie Bergheim, 22, of Drammen, Norway, who both died in May 2009 on the southern island of Koh Phi Phi. Sherifa Khalid, 24, of Kuwait, who died 12 hours she spent a day on the same island in July of the same year.

Read the rest of the story at Deborah Blum's blog, Elemental

Check out two previous stories that she's written on the same subject.


    1. Yep! First thing that came to my mind too.
      Great novel  (german title “der Schnupfen” literally “the cold”).

  1. Man, that’s fucking scary. I spent 3 weeks in Thailand in June/July 2009, and I never heard a peep about this.

  2. One of the dead women was a friend of mine and part of my community. It is eerie not to know the whys and wherefores of her death. It is beyond frustration that the local and national authorities in Thailand are not taking an investigation seriously and with transparecny.

    1. It needs more national news attention I think.  Right now the authorities are definitely in the mindset that “Telling the world about our mysterious tourist poisoning serial killer is probably going to hurt our tourism income.”  Because it’s not a big story, they’re just sweeping it under the rug.  If this took off in our national news they would be forced to confront the problem and maybe try to actually solve it. 

      Also, they would have to give up on the ridiculous notion of the pesticide that only kills young white foreign women. 

      1. What if the poison was in the cocaine?  Did that even occur to you?  The um…  vaginal…  um…  cocaine, that’s it!  That would explain everything!

        But really, the friends and family of the victims should chip in and mount some sort of Twitter campaign or something.  “Visit Thailand – Die Mysterious Death – Click for details.”  Fleeing tourism dollars might just get results from the authorities.

      2. Except whatever is happening ISN’T just killing young white women. From the article:
        “a Canadian, Bill Mah, 59 on January 26; followed by the death of a Thai tour guide, Warapom Pungmahisiranom, 47 on February 3; New Zealander Sarah Carter, 23, on February 4, and a British couple, Bill, 78, and Eileen Everitt, 74, two weeks later”

        It seems to be more common among young women, but is by no means limited to them.

  3. The insecticide theory is interesting. I have slept in beach side shacks in Malaysia where you just want to smother the place in insect spray to keep the mosquitoes out. Lately I have been travelling with mosquito nets as an alternative. The chemical solution is pretty horrible and used by a lot of people.

    1. Considering that @GlyphGryph:disqus wrote above that individuals of all genders and ages are dying in similar circumstances, the conversation is broadened by eliminating the serial killer pattern, there could be some extreme allergic reactions to pesticides used in Southeast Asia.  Considering the amount of known deaths under these “mysterious circumstances”, it would still be a fraction of a percent of those exposed, and that would fit a probabilistic pattern.

      The chemical solution is pretty horrible and used by a lot of people.
      I’ve never been to Thailand, but I do remember reading that the government had to outlaw toilet paper used as napkins in restaurant tables.
      That same “thrifty” lack of… ummm… conscientious attitude, can manifest itself in markets and restaurants spraying a coat of pesticide on food in storage, to keep the bugs at bay, without visualizing the potential consequences.  So now shoppers and patrons are ingesting poison, and some have a severe reaction.
      Developing the idea as I go along here, it’s sounding very plausible and fits the Occam Razor.

      So two questions:
      1. Has everybody who presents symptoms died?
      2. Are there numbers on similar cases within the local population?

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