By Sarah Hall
When 23-year-old Sarah Carter died in Chiang Mai in Thailand, it was initially thought her death was a terrible case of food poisoning.
That was until six other tourists died in the city, including three in the same hotel.
Most had very similar symptoms, including myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart.
Thai authorities have maintained the deaths were coincidence, but tonight, 60 Minutes has credible evidence that Sarah Carter died due to insecticide poisoning.
60 Minutes travelled to Chiang Mai and took samples from the bedroom Sarah stayed in at the Downtown Inn, while posing as a hotel guest interested in renting a room.
When she got there the entire fifth floor, the floor where Sarah and her friends stayed, was being pulled apart and cleaned.
It is understood health authorities were due to visit the hotel the next day.
Before leaving for Chiang Mai, 60 Minutes spoke to a New Zealand scientist who suspected insecticide poisoning.
Thai police were also thinking along the same lines and according to an inspector in the local force had raided the company in charge of eradicating insects at the hotel.
We managed to glean from an inspector, the police had raided the company in charge of eradicating insects at the hotel.
Chiang Mai’s Head of Public Health Dr Surasing was also investigating this theory.
“I’m not the specialist,” he said. “But it’s possible that they mixed together the wrong chemicals.”
But Dr Surasing was not able to mention the chemicals that were used in the hotel or the company contracted to use them.
The idea that some Thai hotels could be using unsafe chemicals first came to light two years ago when American Jill St Onge and Norwegian Julie Bergheim died at a Thai resort after they began violently vomiting.
American investigators suspected chemical poisoning but the Thai authorities lost all the samples.
However, 60 Minutes’ samples were being looked after carefully and were taken back to New Zealand for testing by an independent laboratory.
The lab found tiny traces of an insecticide, chlorpyrifos, which is banned in some countries for domestic use.
“I think she’s been killed by an overzealous sprayer who has been acting on the instructions of the hotel owner to deal with the bed bugs,” said chemical expert Dr Ron McDowall, who works for the United Nations cleaning up toxic rubbish dumps.
He said the traces brought back were small, but the fact that the chemical was found three months later, in a room that had been scrubbed, points to chlorpyrifos poisoning.
To further check his theory, Dr McDowall sent the results to other experts in New Zealand and Italy.
“Their reaction was that it is clear, it’s CY poisoning - we’ve seen it before, the symptoms are the same, the pathology is the same, and the proxy indicates that the chemical was in the room. Because it was a proxy with a reasonable level it means the amount in the room was high.”
This spray may have been used only in certain rooms where there was a known bed-bug problem which may be why not everyone at the hotel got sick, but Sarah Carter did.
Unfortunately the blood samples taken from Sarah Carter cannot tell us the answer.
“The chemical is absorbed by the body very quickly. It only has a half-life of a day so it can be very hard to detect after the event,” said Dr McDowall.
Despite this Dr McDowall was confident the symtoms Sarah had plus the manner of her death fitted with chlorpyrifos poisoning.
Yesterday we took our findings to Sarah Carter’s parents, Richard and Anna.
“It’s good to get an answer,” said Mr Carter. “But pretty horrific that they have such low standards that that can happen.”
“I didn’t want it to be an individual,” said Ms Carter. “I wanted it to be some faceless, nameless thing. I guess this does bring closure, at least we know so it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
“Hopefully there will be some action taken now and it won’t be like the other cases where it is swept under the carpet and is just an unexplained death, never substantiated with any follow up.”
The Carters have struggled to get information from the Thai authorities and they question how much effort is being put into the investigation.
“Their short term defence is to bury all these incidences so that the rest of the world doesn’t hear about them to ensure their tourist numbers don’t drop off,” said Mr Carter.
The Govenor of Chiang Mai, who has always maintained the deaths are not linked agreed to sit down with 60 Minutes and answer some of our questions.
60 Mins: You have said that the seven deaths were a coincidence. Do you still believe that?
Governor: I do believe. I do believe coincidence.
60 Mins: I think people find it very hard to believe that seven people dying in similar circumstances is a coincidence.
Governor: It is a very bad occasion and such bad luck for that hotel.
60 Mins: If this had happened in New Zealand the hotel would have been shut down – why hasn’t it been shut?
Governor: There are concerns of certain rules of law in the country. We are very saddened by what happened to Miss Sarah Carter.
60 Minutes also spoke to one of Sarah’s travelling companion, Emma Langlands who also became ill and has not spoken publically about the ordeal until tonight.
She says the three friends had been looking forward to going off on their OE together.
“We were really excited, really looking forward to a well-deserved holiday,” she said.
After holidaying on a Thai island the girls headed for a more cultural experience in Chiang Mai, a northern city renowned for its rivers, markets and temples. There they planned to go elephant trekking and visit the local hill tribes.
Sarah Carter, Amanda and a third friend Emma, arrived in Chiang Mai late in the afternoon.
They went to the Downtown Inn, dipped their toes in the pool, booked themselves on a tour and then went to Chiang Mai’s night markets.
The girls were pretty worried about what they could safely eat and chose a well-known food court to eat at.
“We were very cautious about where we chose to eat and if we didn’t like the look of a place then, you know, we wouldn’t eat there,” said Amanda.
“Sarah and I chose pork curry, and Amanda chose to have a chicken pita kebab.”
So given the three girls ate different meals and none of them ate any toxic seaweed, as early reports suggested, it seems a food poisoning diagnosis is unlikely.
Amanda said the trio’s first impression of the Downtown Inn was good.
“I mean nothing really stood out. The room seemed really clean and there was no, you know, strange smells or anything like that. We did see a sign that indicated that the hotel was sprayed with insecticides but we don’t know when that occurred.”
When the girls woke the next morning all three had sore stomachs and they began vomiting.
They got so bad that night they were rushed to Chiang Mai Ram Hospital with suspected food poisoning.
Two girls recovered, sadly Sarah Carter suffered heart and kidney failure and died the next morning.