Frequently linked with accidental mass poisonings, fumigants are inherently dangerous pesticides. Even when accidents do not occur, fumigant application exposes people to unsafe levels of these toxic compounds. Highly volatile, fumigants are used to sterilize soil before planting crops such as strawberries, potatoes and carrots. They are applied intensively — 50-400 pounds per acre compared to 1–5 pounds per acre for other pesticides.
Fumigant pesticides also are among the most toxic chemicals used in agriculture. The U.S. EPA categorizes most fumigants as "highly acutely toxic" — the agency's most extreme toxicity category.
Major Soil Fumigants
Acute fumigant poisoning causes eye irritation, sore throat, headaches, nausea, vomiting, breathing difficulties and aggravated asthma, and neurological effects such as convulsions, dizziness, or tremors. Fumigant exposure also has long-lasting effects that include:
The volatility of fumigants makes them inherently dangerous. Communities and farmworkers near agricultural fields face serious risks of acute pesticide poisoning from drifting fumigants.
Fumigant drift has also been measured in air far from application sites, sometimes at levels above those considered “acceptable” for longer-term seasonal exposures by EPA or the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. (See: Second-hand Pesticides: Airborne Pesticide Drift in California) Results from PANNA's Drift Catcher project in Sisquic, California showed that residents were exposed to levels of chloropicrin that exceeded California's acute level of concern for children.
Sometimes I couldn't stand how my eyes were watering and my throat hurt; I couldn't stand the gas. I would run outside the field to get some air. Now I can't breathe well, and my vision is blurry. -Jorge Fernandez, farmworker poisoned by methyl bromide. Salinas, CA
Accidents are unavoidable and, as demonstrated by Drift Catcher results, even typical, accident-free application expose neighbors to amounts of chemicals that exceed levels of concern. Poison Gases in the Field
Fumigants dramatically impact soil health and sustainability---eradicating not only weeds and pests, but also beneficial organisms. Several studies cited in the Journal of Pesticide Reform indicate that fumigants can devastate beneficial nematodes, fungi, and bacteria critical to the nitrogen cycle.
Economically viable non-chemical alternatives are available and already in use by organic and other sustainable agricultural practitioners. These alternatives include use of resistant cultivars, cultural methods such as crop rotation and use of cover crops as well as physical methods such as soil solarization (download PANNA's Technical Comment letter for more detail on alternatives).
Research & Analysis