September 4, 2008
- Explosion rocks Bayer's West Virginia plant
- Ghana restricts pesticide imports
- South African women face pesticide risks
- Pesticides contribute to ocean's 'Dead Zones'
- German NGO sues Bayer over bee deaths
- New natural bio-pesticides announced
- Eco-wine goes good with Earth
On August 28, an explosion at the Bayer chemical plant in Institute, West Virginia, created a fireball that lit the sky and shook the ground miles away. One worker was killed and another suffered third-degree burns. The blast erupted in a 4,000-gallon tank in the part of the plant that produces mythomyl, a chemical used in the manufacture of the insecticide Larvin (active ingredient thiodicarb - a PAN Dirty Dozen pesticide). Mike Dorsey, chief of homeland security for the state Department of Environmental Protection, told the Charleston Gazette that "the incident could have been far worse, given the location of the explosion." The process uses methyl isocyanate (MIC), the same chemical that killed thousands when the West Virginia's "sister plant" in Bhopal exploded in 1984. Noting that "Bayer has to make clear which amounts of which substances escaped into the air," Coalition against Bayer Dangers spokesperson Philipp Mimkes told the press: "We repeat our demand that MIC and phosgene stockpiles at Institute have to be dismantled." This was not the first incident at the West Virginia plant. Previous explosions in 1985 and 1994 killed two workers, and a 1996 leak and fire forced residents to "shelter in place." In 2007, dozens of neighbors were hospitalized after drums of thiodicarb ruptured. (Thiodicarb manufacture has been banned in the European Union.) A U.S. EPA survey reported that even under normal operating conditions the plant releases dangerous pollutants. In 2006, the facility released more than 300 tons of pollutants -- including 200 kilograms of MIC and four tons of chlorine. The Institute plant accounts for 95% of MIC emissions nationwide.
The Daily Graphic reports that Ghana's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has forbidden the import of 25 agro-chemicals "because of their toxicological risks to people, animals, crops and the environment." John A. Pwamang, the EPA Director in charge of pesticides, said the ban would cover toxaphene, captafol, aldrin, endrin, chlordane, and DDT (the last four were on PAN's "Dirty Dozen Pesticides" list). Another 118 chemicals were approved for importation "after undergoing testing for efficacy and safety under local conditions." Twenty-four agro-chemicals were given "provisional clearance" for one year. If they prove ineffective or dangerous, they will be banned. Concerned that African counties had been turned into "dumping grounds" for hazardous chemicals, Pwamang said the EPA was encouraging Ghanian scientists to "put more emphasis on biological control methods to reduce the over-reliance on chemicals." Ghana's action is emblematic of the power of the Rotterdam Convention, an international treaty that gives countries the right to refuse imports of hazardous chemicals that have been banned in other countries "in order to protect human health and the environment from potential harm." Thirty-nine chemicals are subject to the treaty's Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure; 28 of these are pesticides. In late October, governments will meet in Rome to consider addition of three new chemicals under the treaty, including the pesticide endosulfan.
According to a report in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (IJOEH), agricultural intensification in South African agriculture is exposing women to greater risks of pesticide poisoning. A survey of 913 women -- one-fifth of the 4,400 women farmers in the Makhatini Flats region of KwaZulu-Natal -- found them to be "at risk for adverse pesticide-related health outcomes" from "class I and II pesticides" known to be hazardous to humans. Historically, men raised cash crops and handled pesticide spraying, leaving women to grow food crops for the family. But as men are drawn to jobs in the urban industrial sector, women have taken on an increasing role in all aspects of farming -- including pesticide-spraying. Post-Apartheid land redistribution programs have left women holding 46% of KwaZulu-Natal's farmland. While nearly half of the women interviewed said they hand-sprayed crops "as frequently as twice a week during a single crop cycle," only 30.6% "knew the name of the pesticide they were using." The most commonly used chemicals were cypermethrin, glyphosate, paraquat, monocrotophos, diuron, metribuzin and lambda-cyhalothrin. South African law requires training workers in safe chemical use but the IJHEC study found "implementation of health and safety legislation in agriculture is poor."
The journal Science reports the number of Dead Zones -- vast regions of the ocean where life has been poisoned by chemical run-off released from the Earth's polluted rivers -- has more than tripled in the past 20 years, soaring from 162 maritime deserts to 405 and covering 95,000 square miles. A single Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico (poisoned in large measure by farm chemicals, fertilizers and municipal sewage pouring from the mouth of the Mississippi River) has now reached a record 8,000 square miles -- the size of New Jersey. Because of the importance of the oceans in maintaining the planetary food-chain, the spread of chemically devastated Dead Zones now constitutes one of the world's gravest environmental threats -- on par with global warming. College of William and Mary ecologist Robert Diaz says half of the world's Dead Zones form from spring-thaw-to-autumn but about 8% now last year-round. According to TIME magazine, the U.S. "could all but eliminate" the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone by giving farmers an incentive to plant crops like winter wheat to absorb nitrogen fertilizers that would otherwise wash into the seas. However, Time adds, "such changes to farm management aren't likely to be cheap or easy to implement."
On August 26, the German-based Coalition against Bayer Dangers (CBD) filed court papers accusing Bayer AG with "marketing dangerous pesticides and thereby accepting the mass death of bees all over the world." The lawsuit was co-filed with German beekeepers who claim Bayer's clothianidin pesticide was responsible for mass die-offs. Bayer's application for approval of clothianidin was rejected by France (which also banned Bayer's imidacloprid) after the death of 90 billion bees over the past decade destroyed 60% of French honey production. Environmental News Service reports "the coalition alleges that the start of sales of imidacloprid and clothianidin coincided with the occurrence of large-scale bee deaths in many European and American countries." CBD lawyer Harro Schultze suspects Bayer "submitted flawed studies to play down the risks." Imidacloprid and clothianidin, two neonicotinoid pesticides, have been among Bayer's most profitable products. Meanwhile, the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency (CPMRA) has challenged Bayer's clothianidin application charging that the field studies were found to be "deficient in design and conduct." The CPMRA concluded that "clothianidin may pose a risk to honey bees" and "is very persistent in soil, with high carry-over of residues to the next growing season. Clothianidin is also mobile in soil." On August 15, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued to force the EPA to disclose the studies Bayer submitted to gain approval of chlothianidin in the U.S. According to ENS, "NRDC attorneys believe that the EPA has evidence of connections between pesticides and the mysterious honey bee die-offs… that it has not made public."
The 236th national meeting of the American Chemical Society heard a number of presentations on the development of natural insecticides and herbicides. Biopesticide pioneer Pam G. Marrone, PhD, of Marrone Organic Innovations (MOI)., in Davis, California, told the conference that knotweed (an invasive weed from Japan that can grow 12-feet -tall in the U.S.) contains an active ingredient that boosts fruit and vegetable resistance to powdery mildew, gray mold and bacterial blight. Environmental News Service likened the finding to the "discovery of an 'organic Roundup' -- the Holy Grail of biopesticide research -- an environmentally friendly and natural version of the world's most widely used herbicide." The new product could be available by October. A version suitable for organic gardeners is planned for 2009. MOI's first biopesticide, GreenMatch EX, was made from lemongrass oil. Synthetic pesticides dominate a $30 billion market but biopesticide sales (currently closing on $1 billion a year) are seeing an average growth of 10 percent per year. By 2010, MOI expects biopesticides will claim 4.25 percent of the global pesticide business, replacing 1.5 percent of synthetic chemical sales.
The New Scientist reports that organic wine is not only good for the palate, it's also good for the planet. Researchers at Italy's University of Siena ran an experiment with Sangiovese grapes grown at two farms in Tuscany. One was an organic farm that employed manual labor, natural fertilizers and bio-pesticides. The other farm used fossil-fuel-powered machines and conventional inputs of synthetic chemicals. The researchers assessed the finished product (including impacts of growing, packaging and distribution) to determine the "eco-footprint" of each wine. "A bottle from the organic farm had an eco-footprint of 7.17 square meters," New Scientist reports, while the footprint of the non-organic vino was 13.98 square meters -- nearly double. The findings suggest that, if winemakers wish to "reduce their overall ecological impact," they should "shift to organic systems."