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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Case of Methyl Bromide

Air Date: Week of

In California, the herbicide methyl bromide was to have been banned, but lobbyists won a five-year reprieve from the ban that may go even longer. Linked to cancer, nerve damage and other health problems, farm workers and others feel the state has made an error in continuing the agricultural use of methyl bromide, as Cheryl Colopy reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. There may be a new Federal pesticide law on the books, but controversy over the use of pesticides is expected to continue. Consider the case of methyl bromide. It's used throughout the world as a fumigant and herbicide, but there's increasing evidence that links the chemical to nerve damage, birth defects, and cancer, as well as to depletion of the earth's ozone layer. A ban on the use of methyl bromide was scheduled to take effect in California in March, but lobbyist won methyl bromide makers and farmers who depend on them a reprieve. And some fear that the Federal ban on methyl bromide, scheduled to take effect in the year 2001, could be pushed aside as well. Cheryl Colopy has our story.

(A motor runs)

RAMOS: They are the most challenging crop that I've ever met. Very challenging from every point of view.

COLOPY: Miguel Ramos is justifiably proud of his strawberries. They're big, vibrantly red and sweet, produced by healthy strawberry plants that march in pairs for row after row, up and down the gently rolling hillsides above the Pacific Ocean, near Monterey, California. Growers here in the Pajaro Valley, say its climate is the most perfect in the world for strawberries: bright sun, cool breezes, and no rain after the fruit forms. But this Eden of strawberry production has its serpents. Miguel Ramos says nematodes and fungi threaten the tender roots of the young plants.

RAMOS: We fumigate with methyl bromide, but for that we go a great length of land preparation. When you're going to fumigate you want that one gas that you inject in a liquid form in the ground to move readily throughout the soil where your roots are going to be growing in the future.

COLOPY: Each of the plants can produce up to 10 pounds of strawberries in a season. Dave Riggs, President of the California Strawberry Commission in Watsonville, says getting the plants off to a good start lets the growers reap the high yields they need.

RIGGS: The advantage of methyl bromide is that it gives us so much stronger plants, so we use a lot less chemicals later on in the production season when there are farm workers in the field and when there's fruit on the vine.

COLOPY: California's legislature was responding to groups like the Strawberry Commission when it postponed a scheduled suspension of methyl bromide earlier this year.

(Tractor engines)

COLOPY: Once a year, before planting, a tractor moves up and down the field injecting a liquid mixture of methyl bromide and chloro-picrin, or teargas, into the soil. The teargas is both an effective pesticide and a warning. Methyl bromide alone is odorless. Because the liquid quickly becomes a gas, a long strip of plastic sheeting, designed to keep the gas in the soil, rolls off the back of the tractor. Workers follow behind, burying the edges of the plastic. They're supposed to wear protective gear, but neighbors say they often don't. And despite precautions there are reports of methyl bromide drifting into nearby homes, causing headaches, nausea, and bloody noses. Methyl bromide is especially toxic to the human nervous system. It's known to have caused 18 deaths in California since 1982.

(Children speak in Spanish)

COLOPY: Schoolchildren may be among the most vulnerable to methyl bromide because schools in this area are so frequently located at the edge of towns where the strawberry fields begin. Terry Ketchie teaches a bilingual class at Ohlone School, where many of the children are from farm worker families. Across the street from the new school is a strawberry field.

KETCHIE: One day I had 9 or 10 kids absent, and a few parents called me and said you know, my kid is just wheezing and he's having an asthma attack and I just can't send him. And 2 parents in particular said I think it must have something to do with what they're putting on the field. Do you know what's under the tarps?

COLOPY: She found out it was methyl bromide. The school reached an agreement with the grower to fumigate only on weekends or after school. He also put up a fence to keep kids and animals out of the field, but Ketchie says she still worries about the long-term effects of the pesticide on children, whose bodies absorb it faster. Strawberry workers have long called the strawberry la fruta del Diablo, or fruit of the Devil, because of the back-breaking work and low wages for picking it. Some can add methyl bromide to the list of hazards. Selia Duarte and her family used to live at the San Andreas Labor Camp near Watsonville. The camp is surrounded by strawberry fields.

S. DUARTE: [Speaks in Spanish]

COLOPY: She says her 5-year-old son Miguel got very sick from asthma when they lived near the fields. But since they moved away from the camp the boy has been fine. Her older son Fernando Duarte remembers the day a few years ago when, just hours after an adjacent field was fumigated, a small boy climbed the fence. He tore the plastic covering and crawled under it.

F. DUARTE: He got like real sick. Then everybody in the camp got like their eyes watery, irritated. They couldn't even sleep. They hurt like at about 10 o'clock at night. So that kid went to the hospital. Then we called the police, the fire department. They came. They told us it was too dangerous to be near the plastic. So they told us to evacuate the whole camp.

COLOPY: Fernando Duarte's mother Celia says that last year growers facing the possible suspension of methyl bromide urged strawberry workers to support its continued use, warning them that losing the pesticide could mean a much smaller harvest and thousands of lost jobs. Teacher Terry Ketchie is frustrated that politicians were swayed by the arguments of growers.

KETCHIE: They're very, very unwilling to take a strong stand for public health. Children's health is much more important than selling a cheap strawberry.

COLOPY: Studies have linked methyl bromide to cancer and birth defects. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies it a Category I acute toxin. In 1984 California required manufacturers to complete a series of toxicity studies by March of this year or face suspension of the fumigant. Most of the studies were completed and they confirmed methyl bromide's toxicity. One of the tests was incomplete but the state delayed the suspension, giving manufacturers until the end of the year to complete the missing study, which will likely mean at least a 5-year reprieve for the growers.

HERGLOTZ: Accidents do occur. I mean, train wrecks happen, things like that. But what you can't do is rid yourself of something that there are no alternatives.

COLOPY: Kevin Herglotz of California's Department of Food and Agriculture dismisses methyl bromide as a serious public health risk. He says the main issue is what its loss would cost California.

HERGLOTZ: California is constantly looking for alternatives but what we can't do is put ourselves at an economic disadvantage with the rest of the nation and the rest of the world. Until economically viable alternatives exist, we can't throw methyl bromide out the door.

COLOPY: The issue reverberates far beyond California. Methyl bromide is used heavily in Florida as well as abroad, and it's become a global issue because the fumigant is known to be a key destroyer of the Earth's ozone layer. Because of this, manufacture and import of methyl bromide will become illegal in 2001. But Ann Schoenfield of Pesticide Action Network warns that this ban could still be undermined.

SCHOENFIELD: The talk is still every month in Congress, let's kill the Clean Air Act and let's get rid of the 2001 phase-out date. And the Clinton Administration is sucked into this. You know, they're the ones that passed the law in the first place, but now, you know, wen they're, like, kind of diddling around and trying to figure out what their environmental stand is, they're saying oh, well, maybe we need to have loopholes. Maybe we need to rethink about 2001.

COLOPY: The EPA says it supports a complete ban of methyl bromide and will keep working to carry it out. The agency says it also supports an international agreement to phase out methyl bromide globally by 2010.

(Crop duster engine)

COLOPY: So in spite of the reprieve California strawberries growers got this year, Miguel Ramos is worried.

RAMOS: There's no way that we're going to be able to grow strawberries, at least the way we do it with the varieties that we have, without methyl bromide.

COLOPY: Others say there are alternatives, but they agree that a ban on methyl bromide will require growers to experiment with new varieties of strawberry and with methods of pest control that may, at least in the short run, lead to a more expensive strawberry. They say state agencies and the big growers who can afford to take some risks will have to lead the way so that growers like Miguel Ramos can stay in business. For Living on Earth I'm Cheryl Colopy in Watsonville, California.



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