|"Chicago Tribune," October 1, 1978, via Newspapers.com|
Poisoning cases are often inscrutable. They are particularly frightening when it is impossible to tell if the poisoning was by deliberate action or by accident, and even the nature of the toxin is unknowable. Such was the deadly puzzle which plagued a family in Pevely, Missouri.
In September 1978, Eva Sims and her husband Alvin had their home exterminated for pests. To get away from the fumes, they planned to spend the night of September 19 at the home of their daughter, Bonnie Boyer. However, on that day, they were unable to contact anyone at the Boyer home. Their repeated phone calls were met with only a busy signal.
When Eva drove to the Boyer home to investigate, she was met with something both terrifying and mysterious. The first person she encountered there was Bonnie’s husband Robert. He “didn’t let on like he knew me,” Mrs. Sims said later. When she asked where Bonnie was, “He looked back at me and shook his head as if he didn’t know.”
When she began searching the house, she soon found the dead body of her daughter. Bonnie was lying on the bedroom floor, covered with a blanket. Robert--still in his weirdly dazed condition--went to the bathroom and vomited. He started to cry. Mrs. Sims called the police.
When authorities arrived on the scene, they knew something was obviously terribly wrong, although they had a hard time figuring out what it was. The Boyer’s two dogs and cat were found inside the house, in a curiously weakened state. (The dogs eventually recovered, but the cat was euthanized in order to obtain tissue samples.) The two Boyer children, 16 year old Tonya and 14 year old Barry, were semi-conscious and having seizures. Their father continued in what one policeman called “a spaced-out condition,” unable to say anything intelligible other than his children’s names and ages. The first officer to enter the Boyer home, Colleen Fitzpatrick, instantly became so nauseated, she collapsed. Another officer thought he smelled a “gaseous substance” in the basement. He too began feeling ill.
There were no gas appliances in the home. There was a sewage line hooked up to the house, but no trace of methane gas was found. A team of Army epidemiologists could find no trace of any nerve gas contamination.
Toxicologist Dr. Howard Schwartz assembled a team of specialists to examine the Boyer home. These experts were able to quickly rule out all the “usual suspects”: carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, methane, cyanide, strychnine, arsenic, drug overdoses and food poisoning. The Boyers tested negative for viral or bacterial agents. Bonnie Boyer’s autopsy found “no obvious cause of death.”
On September 21, Barry Boyer died. And Dr. Schwartz admitted to reporters that so far, his team had “come up with zilch.” The only possible clue they had to work with was that one unusual thing was found in the bodies of Bonnie and Barry: a breakdown product of dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO,) a solvent commonly found in various household products. While not toxic itself, it can cause other, more dangerous chemicals to be more easily absorbed through the skin. However, DMSO was not found in any notably high amount, and Dr. Schwartz was skeptical that it had anything to do with whatever it was that sickened the Boyers.
On September 22, a dog, a kitten, and a rat spent the night in the Boyer home, with no noticeable ill effects. E.P.A. agents found no sign of any toxic gases that might have seeped into the home. The residents of Pevely were getting understandably nervous about everyone’s inability to figure out how their neighbors died.
The investigation turned to a set of 30 styrofoam insulation panels that were stored in the Boyer home. Robert Boyer’s nephew, Steve Reisner, had been planning to install them before winter came. Reisner had acquired them from the Dow Chemical plant where he worked. The panels were “uncured”; that is to say, they had not gone through the 7-day storage period required to make sure any industrial fumes dissipated from them. It was speculated that the panels released methyl bromide into the home, as a related molecule, methyl chloride, is used in the making of styrofoam. However, while traces of methyl bromide were found in the air of the Boyer home, no levels of any significance were found in tissue samples taken from Mrs. Boyer. Dr. Schwartz admitted that he was only considering methyl bromide as a suspect in the Boyer poisonings because they were unable to come up with anything else. Dow Chemical experts pointed out that within the past ten years, Dow employees had suffered no fume-related injuries, and that it was impossible that the styrofoam sheets could have emitted methyl bromide in levels sufficient to be toxic. The CDC did an experiment where they kept lab animals among uncured styrofoam in amounts proportionate to what was found in the Boyer home. The animals stayed perfectly healthy.
Yet another blow to the Styrofoam of Death theory was that on September 17--the day the Boyers began to show symptoms--a friend of Barry’s, Tim Weibking, spent eight hours in the house with no ill effects. On the other hand, Robert’s 10 year old niece, Suzie, spent the night of the 17th with them, and subsequently became so sick her father brought her to the hospital. The cause of her illness also proved to be a complete mystery.
In short, the experts had to admit that they were well and truly stumped.
In 1979, Tonya Boyer, who had never recovered her health, died. Robert Boyer was left permanently impaired. In 1981, Robert sued Dow Chemical for 3.6 million in damages, using the argument that the styrofoam panels had indeed been responsible for the deaths. The case was settled out of court, with the judgments in the matter permanently sealed.
As far as I have been able to find, the riddle of what invisible agent so horribly ravaged the Boyer family has never been definitively answered.
[A footnote: as you may have noted in the photo, the Boyers were living in what was intended to be the basement section of the house Robert was in the process of building. It is unknown whether the unfinished state of their residence had anything to do with the tragedy.]