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U.S. Muscles Montreal Protocol on MB Limits
December 10, 2004
U.S. methyl bromide (MB) consumption will increase in 2005, despite provisions added to the Montreal Protocol in 1997 to eliminate production and use of the fumigant in industrial nations by 2005. On November 29, 2004, in Prague, the 16th Conference of Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer approved the U.S. government’s request to increase exemptions for continued use of MB in so-called “critical uses.” The exemption will increase the nation’s consumption of this cancer causing and ozone-depleting chemical to 37% of the 1991 baseline level, or about 9,400 tons in 2005. That is more than the total amount used by all U.S. agricultural and other users in 2003.
The U.S. had also requested continued exemptions for 2006 at 37% of baseline levels. The Protocol’s technical panel opposed the request, however, on the basis that exemptions of only 27% could be justified. David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attended the meeting in Prague and reports that U.S. officials balked at the technical panel’s conclusions, claiming they were “arbitrary.” “The technical committee did a good job of standing its ground,” Doniger said. “They sent a strong message that reductions are possible and they need to be undertaken.” By the meeting’s end, the full conference of Parties accepted the technical panel’s recommendations but also agreed to consider increasing the 2006 exemptions at a special meeting next summer.
According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data obtained by NRDC under the Freedom of Information Act, total U.S. use of MB in 2002 fell to 30% of the baseline level, or 7,674 metric tons. The recent “Critical Use” exemptions will nearly double the nation’s MB use, with California strawberry growers and Florida tomato farmers the main beneficiaries.
U.S. officials argue that alternatives for soil sterilization or grain storage are not yet available, despite an investment of $150 million in research by the USDA. A fact sheet on Non-Chemical Alternatives to Methyl Bromide on the PANNA website lists five commonly used alternatives as well as several experimental procedures for soil sterilization. Currently 80 countries are phasing in these and other alternatives.
While growers and millers are reducing their consumption worldwide, methyl bromide use is growing for sterilizing raw wood pallets and crates in order to reduce risks of invasive pests on imports and exports. International Plant Pest Convention guidelines require treatment of raw wood packaging material by heat or by methyl bromide before intercontinental shipping. Total world use of methyl bromide for all purposes was about 50,000 tons in 2000, and declining rapidly. About 10,000 tons used in 2000 was attributed to all quarantine purposes. But the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service estimates that as much as 102,000 tons of methyl bromide could be required worldwide for treating wood packaging, expanding quarantine treatment by a factor of 10 and more than doubling total world usage. Concrete figures, however, are unknown.
At the Prague meeting, countries adopted two resolutions regarding use of MB in wood packaging. One resolution, supported by the U.S., Australia, Canada, and others, encourages all countries to compile and submit data on uses of MB for quarantine purposes. The second resolution, supported by Colombia and Guatemala, encourages countries to prefer heat treatment or alternative materials for packaging, however this resolution is not binding.
In addition to ozone depletion, methyl bromide presents serious risks to those handling and applying the chemical. The EPA classifies MB in Toxicity Category I, the category of most deadly substances, for its potential for neurological damage and reproductive harm. Many farmworkers and residents near fumigated fields have experienced these symptoms and communities have restricted its use in fields located near homes and schools. Improper handling of methyl bromide during fumigation has had deadly consequences for workers in foreign ports and other facilities. In May of 2003 the National Cancer Institute reported that methyl bromide has been linked to increased prostate cancer risks in a study of 55,000 pesticide applicators, including farmers, nursery workers, and workers in warehouses and grain mills.
The Montreal Protocol has been enormously successful in reducing worldwide consumption of chloroflurorcarbons, and until recently, has also achieved encouraging results for methyl bromide—as of 2003, use in developed countries had been reduced to 70% of 1991 levels. Yet, to heal the hole in the ozone, the phase-out needs to be fully implemented. “If the U.S. is seen to be welching on the deal,” said NRDC’s David Doniger, “ it will encourage other countries to do the same.”
Sources: NRDC Fact Sheets, USDA Proposed Rules for “Official Quarantine Use, and Actual Data on Methyl Bromide Use in the U.S.; Non-chemical Alternatives to Methyl Bromide, Excerpts from Technical Literature, PANNA,Agricultural Pesticide Use May Be Associated With Increased Risk of Prostate Cancer, National Cancer Institute, Cancer.gov, http://www.nci.nih.gov/newscenter/pressreleases/AgricultureHealthStudy.Contact: PANNA, NRDC, http://www.nrdc.org, phone, 202 289-6868.
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