10-year wait on why toddlers died
Poisons were the culprit but state labs can’t deliver verdicts
● Joshua Greig, 2, was playing in the preschool sandpit with friends when he went limp. Fifteen minutes later, soon after arriving at hospital, he was dead.
Doctors suspected poison, by organophosphate, an insecticide. But they don’t know which poison, or where the toddler might have been exposed to it.
With a backlog of up to 10 years at the government toxicology laboratory, the chief specialist at the Gauteng Forensic Pathology Service’s southern cluster, professor Jeanine Vellema, says the answers are a long way off for Joshua’s parents, Jacky and Murray.
The family lives in Lonehill, which straddles the Lonehill Nature Reserve, north of Johannesburg. The conservation site has banned the use of the chemicals.
Jacky said there was nothing untoward on January 22 when Joshua gave her a cuddle before his father took him to school.
“The doctors said he must have been exposed to it somewhere in between because his levels [of organophosphate] were so high they called him the walking dead.”
Before an ambulance arrived at the school, Joshua had trouble breathing.
“I arrived at the hospital at the same time as the ambulance. He was in his teacher’s arms and looked at me ... I could see in his eyes he had gone,” said his mother.
The little body needs a toxicology screening to discover what poisoned him. This can be done only by a pathology service.
The week after Joshua’s death, his father was taken to hospital.
“[The doctor] suspected grief and called me in to say he was having a panic attack. When I saw him I knew immediately it wasn’t a panic attack. He was sweating and shaking and had lost control of his body,” said his wife.
Murray has since recovered but doctors found huge amounts of organophosphates in his body.
“The whole family was tested every other week [including their son Benjamin, 5, Jacky’s sister Auralia Edwards and housekeeper Agnas Mpolo],” said Jacky.
The family hired a company to do tests in their home and on their car. All were clear.
“We know it will take years before they screen Joshua and there is no justice in that,” Jacky said.
About 30km away, in Westbury, two other families are fighting the same battle.
In 2019 Antoinette Assegaai lost twoyear-old daughter Tshepang on May 10, and Fanula and Joseph Wabet lost their 17month-old son Othniel on May 11. Both children had ingested poison on May 9.
“We first need to see what poisoned the toddlers before we can make a case against [any person],” said Jerbes de Bruyn, a Sophiatown police captain at the time.
Vellema said there were only three forensic chemistry laboratories — in Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg — which did toxicology tests and the backlog was as long as 10 years.
“Toxicology is a disaster,” she said. “Police will often say they can’t continue with the case until the results are in, but we can’t complete our files until we get that toxicology report. So when we see a case where we know there needs to be a tox screen we start sweating because we know it will take years.”
She said if there was a need for urgency, the service could make submissions to the national director in the health department.
“These usually still take around four to six months, even when expedited.”
She said she was concerned with the Greig case because “it needs to be thoroughly investigated”.
“There has been a death, another member of the family in ICU and another poisoning [Jacky Greig also had organophosphates in her system], which means there could be a chance that others are harmed.”
Health minister Zweli Mkhize told parliament in January that 28,818 toxicology reports were outstanding in three of the department’s laboratories and that more than 30,000 reports had been outstanding for 10 years and longer.
Stiaan Krause, of BDK Attorneys, said a backlog in the toxicology laboratories was “simply disastrous” for the criminal justice system.
“It denies prosecutors the authority and the ability to prosecute. The innocent may wait years to be vindicated and victims of crime are ultimately denied justice and closure.”
Sophiatown police did not respond to questions at the time of publishing.
When we see a case where we know there needs to be a tox screen we start sweating because we know it will take years Jeanine Vellema
Forensic pathology chief specialist