Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
Methyl Bromide in Montreal
In an extraordinary session in late-March, signatory nations to the Montreal Protocol, an important international environmental health treaty, rebuffed US demands for increased “critical use exemptions” of the ozone depleting pesticide methyl bromide (MB). During a three day meeting in Montreal, the combined forces of several European, Latin American and other nations that have sharply reduced their use of MB, together with public interest organizations including Pesticide Action Network, California Certified Organic Farmers, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace, managed to preserve the spirit if not the letter of the Protocol, and prevented serious undermining of what is widely considered to be the most successful international environmental agreement in existence.
The treaty, signed in 1987, guides global progress in phasing out ozone depleting chemicals. Six months ago, in September 2003, the World Meteorological Organization announced the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic is again expanding rapidly and has now reached record levels. The United Nations Environmental Program has estimated that every 1% drop in the ozone layer causes the Earth’s surface to be exposed to a 1-2% increase in harmful UVB radiation. The human health consequences of this increase in UVB radiation are increases in the incidence of skin cancers, cataracts, and suppression of the human immune system, reducing the ability to fight infections.
Methyl bromide was targeted under the Montreal agreement because of its potency in destroying ozone, which protects the earth’s surface from ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. MB is widely used as a soil fumigant in the production of strawberries, tomatoes, tobacco and other crops, and for grain storage. Highly hazardous to human health, MB is a carcinogen, a reproductive toxin and toxic to the central nervous system. Farmers and workers following fumigation tractors or spreading tarps can be exposed to dangerously high levels of the pesticide, which can easily drift off site. In 1998 the Environmental Working Group estimated that 70,000 elementary school children in California’s strawberry growing region attended schools at risk of MB exposure, at one school in Watsonville, methyl bromide concentration levels were more than 10 times the state’s safety standard following a fumigation at an adjacent strawberry field. MB has been found in air samples days after fumigation.
The “First Extraordinary Meeting of the Parties” for the Montreal Protocol was convened March 23-26, 2004 because 16 nations had requested exemptions for production and import of MB, overwhelming the successful reductions achieved in previous years, which had lowered use to 30% of 1991 levels. Worldwide, requests for “critical use exemptions” for 2005 totaled 14,000 tons, almost 70% (or 9,500 tons) was requested by the U.S., an amount that would raise, not lower, methyl bromide use in the US.
The U.S. wanted to produce and use MB at 35% of 1991 levels for three years, ignoring the 2005 deadline for total phase out as scheduled under the treaty. Instead, after much pressure, and testimony by non-government organizations, the U.S. was allowed use levels at 35% of 1991 levels, for one year only, with new production limited to 30%, and the balance coming from existing stockpiles. Member governments also agreed to provide information on “available stocks” of the chemical, something which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) has not done within the U.S., although a cursory 2003 survey has turned up 22 million pounds (11 tons).
The issue of stockpiles of MB was an important concern raised in Montreal. The Environmental Investigation Agency, a non profit organization which monitors illegal trade and stockpiling of ozone depleting chemicals, has tracked the emergence of an illegal trade in CFCs (also being phased out under the Montreal Protocol), and is now seeing the same signs of illicit stockpiling and unreported trade for methyl bromide.
The U.S. government had argued that MB is vital for strawberry and tomato growers, and that no economically viable alternative exists. Vanessa Bogenholm, an organic strawberry grower and Chair of the Board of California Certified Organic Farmers testified in Montreal that growers “…have all known that this phase out was coming for many years and should have been doing major field size research trials not just small (100-200 ft) experimental trials.” She also stated that, “financial concerns of individual farmers cannot be considered more important than environmental concerns or the health of human beings.”
Since 1999, industrialized countries have cut methyl bromide use by 70% under the treaty. Growers and mill operators in another 80 countries have been phasing in alternatives and use very little of the fumigant, including the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Japan, but also developing countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica and Argentina.
Sources: Fact Sheet, Methyl Bromide Use in California, on-chemical Alternatives to Methyl Bromide, Methyl Bromide Briefing Kit, PANNA, http://www.panna.org; U.S. Trims Request for Exemptions From Pact on Saving Ozone Layer, New York Times, March 27, 2004; Testimony before the Parties to the Montreal Protocol, Vanessa Bogenholm and Environmental Investigation Agency, March 26, 2003; World Meteorological Association, Size of Ozone Hole Oct 2003, http://www.wmo.ch/indexflash.html.
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