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The Bush administration continues to play the role of global environmental outlaw, endangering public and environmental health while protecting polluting industries. Most recently, the U.S. government is reneging on commitments under the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances at a key meeting this week in Senegal. The U.S. is refusing to phase-out methyl bromide, a toxic pesticide and ozone-depleting chemical widely used on strawberries and tomatoes.
Conventional growers in the United States inject methyl bromide gas into the soil in order to kill almost all living organisms before planting. Although growers cover the ground with plastic afterwards, some of the gas inevitably escapes into the air, endangering the health of workers and local communities and enlarging the hole in the earth's stratospheric ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol, the 1987 global environmental treaty to stop the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, called for the phase-out of the use of methyl bromide in industrialized countries by January 2005.
Countries that have signed the Montreal Protocol are meeting in Dakar, Senegal from December 12-16 to continue the phase-out of ozone-depleting chemicals. Once a strong supporter of the Protocol, the United States is now aggressively undermining the treaty and ignoring the treaty's limits, phase-out deadlines and reporting requirements. Instead of reducing its methyl bromide use as it had agreed, the Bush administration has been demanding "emergency exemptions" to the phase-out totaling more than 6,500 tons of methyl bromide—more than any other country in the world—violating both the spirit and the letter of the treaty.
"As countries around the world reduce their methyl bromide use, the U.S. government is back-tracking and actually encouraging methyl bromide users to continue their reliance on this terrible poison," says Monica Moore, Co-director of Pesticide Action Network North America. Methyl bromide breaks down in the stratosphere and releases bromine, which destroys ozone and allows the sun's ultraviolet rays to penetrate the earth's atmosphere more easily. Bromine is forty-five times more damaging to ozone than chlorine, which is released from ozone-depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The growing hole in the ozone layer means increasing rates of skin cancer and cataracts from UV exposures, disruption of aquatic food chains in the rich fisheries around the earth's poles, and other serious problems.
Methyl bromide is also directly dangerous to health here on earth. The gas is an acutely toxic and highly volatile reproductive and nervous system poison. Animal studies indicate that exposures cause birth defects, repeated exposures cause neurobehavioral problems, and higher exposure levels can permanently damage the nervous system. A 2002 study of more than 55,000 agricultural workers and professional pesticide applicators singled out methyl bromide for its association with increased prostate cancer risk at all levels of exposure. In areas of California with high methyl bromide use (including Santa Cruz, Monterey and Ventura counties), many residents report chronic headaches, severe asthma attacks, nausea, sore throats and dry cough during methyl bromide season.
The Modesto Bee reported the case of farmworker Arturo Becerra, who was fumigating an Oakdale almond orchard with methyl bromide in March 2004, when the hose broke and sprayed him in the face with the toxic pesticide. Becerra spent eight days nauseated and vomiting in the hospital. "My eyes and face felt tingly, and it felt like my eyes were going to pop out of my head," the Bee quotes Becerra describing the incident. Officials at Golden West Nuts now face charges in Stanislaus County Superior Court in the first criminal case of pesticide poisoning in California since 1991.
Methyl bromide gas has also drifted from farm fields into schools to expose students to dangerous levels of this toxic pesticide. Studies conducted by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation in 2001 discovered alarming concentrations of methyl bromide in the air of at least three public schools in Watsonville and Salinas, in California's Central Coast strawberry growing region. Methyl bromide levels at Pajaro Middle School in Watsonville, where most students are of Mexican descent, were found to be seven times higher than the level considered safe for children over a seven to eight-week period.
Practical least-toxic and non-chemical alternatives to most methyl bromide uses exist, and many more are being researched and need greater EPA and USDA support. Well-proven alternatives include the time honored sustainable agriculture practice of crop rotation. "We rotate strawberries with broccoli, cauliflower, or brussel sprouts, and we haven't seen build up of soil pathogens," notes Patrick Troy of the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, which trains new farmers in organic production in Salinas, California. Solarization, the practice of covering fields with plastic and allowing the sun to heat the soil to temperatures that kill plant pathogens has been shown to be more cost effective than methyl bromide under certain conditions. The sustained growth of organic production in the U.S., further underscores that alternatives to methyl bromide are available and feasible.
"Methyl bromide is the most dangerous ozone-destroying chemical still in widespread use. But some factions in the pesticide industry have chosen denial and obstruction and are waging a campaign to stop or even reverse the phase-out of methyl bromide," David Doniger, Policy Director for the Climate Center for Natural Resources Defense Council explains. "Their campaign, based on misrepresentation and innuendo, must not be allowed to succeed. Leaders who pander to their pressure are punishing those farmers who played by the rules, endangering the health of millions of Americans, and making our country into an international outlaw."
To make your voice heard in upcoming actions to stop the use of methyl bromide, subscribe to Pesticide Action Network North America's PAN Alerts service.
California Department of Pesticide Regulation. 2001. Summary of Ambient Air Monitoring for Methyl Bromide.
Kegley, Susan, Anne Katten and Marion Moses. 2003. Secondhand Pesticides, Airborne Pesticide Drift in California. Pesticide Action Network North America, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLA), Pesticide Education Center, Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR).
Pesticide Action Network North America. Why US EPA Should Not Register Methyl Iodide. http://www.panna.org/campaigns/driftMeI.html
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2005. Fact Sheet - 25th Open-ended Working Group, Second Extraordinary Meeting of the Parties. http://www.epa.gov/ozone/mbr/MeBr_FactSheet.html
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation. 1996. "Alternatives to Methyl Bromide: Ten Case Studies- Soil, Commodity, and Structural Use" in Stratospheric Ozone Protection, Volume 2, December 1996.
Sternbee, Eric. 2005. "Lax ag safety may hit wallets" Modesto Bee, August 28th, 2005.