A sign, required by law, warns
of a pesticide application of methyl bromide on a field near Watsonville,
Calif., Aug. 12, 2005. The pesticide is used to fumigate the soil as preparation
for strawberry planting. The U.S. continues to permit the methyl bromide
to be used despite signing an international treaty that banned its use
by 2005. Its survival demonstrates the difficulty of banishing a chemical
that is a powerful toxin but that also helps deliver abundant, pest-free
and affordable produce for farmers and consumers. (AP Photo/Rita Beamish)
Shoppers rifle through store shelves brimming with succulent tomatoes
and plump strawberries, hoping to enjoy one last round of fresh fruit before
the Western growing season ends. There is no hint of a dark side to the blaze
Strawberries are a painful subject for Guillermo Ruiz. The farm worker
believes his headaches, confusion and vision trouble stem from a decade working
in the fields with methyl bromide, a pesticide that protects the berries with
Cheri Alderman, a teacher whose classroom borders a farm, fears her students
could inhale a dangerous whiff of the fumigant as it drifts from the adjacent
strawberry field. "A little dribble of poison is still poison," she
The concerns stretch globally.
Other nations watch as the United States keeps permitting wide use
of methyl bromide for tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, Christmas trees and other
crops, even though the U.S. signed an international treaty banning all but the
most critical uses by 2005.
The chemical depletes the earth's protective ozone layer and can harm the human
neurological system, an increasing concern as people settle further into what
was once just farm country.
Methyl bromide's survival demonstrates the difficulty of banishing a powerful
pesticide that helps deliver what both farmers and consumers want: abundant,
pest-free and affordable produce.
The Bush administration, at the urging of agriculture and manufacturing interests,
is making plans to ensure that methyl bromide remains available at least through
2008 by seeking and winning treaty exemptions. Also, the administration will
not commit to an end date.
The administration's "fervent desire and goal" is to end methyl bromide's
use, said Claudia McMurray, deputy assistant secretary of state.
The amount of the fumigant that the administration requested under treaty exemptions
for the next two years is lower than in 2005. Golf course sod, for instance,
won an exemption this year but not next.
"I can't say to you that each year the numbers (of pounds used) would
automatically go down," she said.
The reason is that farmers who each year grow Florida tomatoes, California
strawberries, Georgia peppers and North Carolina Christmas trees worth billions
of dollars are struggling to find a suitable replacement. Alternative organic
techniques are too costly and substitute chemicals are not as effective, growers
"We're not totally clueless. We've seen this train coming. We've tried
every alternative and put every engine on the track, but none of them run,"
said Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee.
Odorless and colorless, methyl bromide is a gas that usually is injected by
tractor into soil before planting, then covered with plastic sheeting to slow
its release into the air. It wipes out plant parasites, disease and weeds. It
results in a spectacular yield, reduced weeding costs and a longer growing season.
Workers who inhale enough of the chemical can suffer convulsions, coma and
neuromuscular and cognitive problems. In rare cases, they can die.
Less is known about the long-term effects of low levels of contact, said Dr.
Robert Harrison, an occupational and environmental health physician at the University
of California, San Francisco.
The U.S. signed the Montreal Protocol treaty, committing to phase out methyl
bromide by 2005 as part of the effort to protect the earth's ozone layer.
A provision allows for exemptions to prevent "market disruption."
The U.S. has used it to persuade treaty signers to allow U.S. farmers to continue
using the chemical.
That exemption process leaves the U.S. 37 percent shy of the phaseout required
by 2005, with at least 10,450 tons of methyl bromide exempted this year. While
that compares with about 28,080 tons used in 1991, this year's total is higher
than it was two years ago.
U.S. officials are heading to a Montreal Protocol meeting in Senegal on Dec.
7 to begin negotiations on exemptions for 2007 and are preparing requests for
That is not what the treaty envisioned, said David Doniger, senior scientist
with the Natural Resources Defense Council. In the 1990s, he worked on the protocol
as head of ozone programs for the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Nobody expected you would use the exemptions to cancel the final step
of the phaseout or even go backward," Doniger said.
With methyl bromide probably sticking around for several years, the EPA is
re-examining its health and safety standards.
California, which grows more than 85 percent of the nation's strawberries and
other methyl bromide-dependent crops, launched regulations last year to improve
its strictest-in-the-nation protections for farmworkers and others.
The increased protections are not enough for Alderman, a teacher at Pajaro
Middle School in the California agricultural belt south of the Santa Cruz beaches.
Kids chase balls across the grassy playing field. Opposite a chain link fence,
just beyond the range of an errant baseball, is a field where strawberries grow.
When air monitoring detected elevated methyl bromide levels four years ago,
Alderman joined the outcry. County officials say they pressed the grower; this
fall he used a different chemical on the fields nearest the school.
Alderman, however, remains concerned because government scientists say methyl
bromide seeps into the air. "We have that nice ocean breeze that blows
it all this way," the teacher said.
Even California's required buffer zones and ban on applying methyl bromide
within 36 hours of school time is not enough, she said. The school draws youngsters
on weekends too, and families live nearby. "It's ridiculous to think that
as long as we don't do it on school days, then were OK," she said.
The American Association of Pesticide Control Centers logged 395 reports of
methyl bromide poisonings from 1999 to 2004. A national total remains elusive
because farmworkers often do not seek medical care.
Advocates for farmworkers contend in a San Francisco Superior Court lawsuit
that even California's exposure limits to protect neighbors are too lax. State
regulators lately have emphasized stricter enforcement and tougher penalties.
Ruiz and Jorge Fernandez, two California farmworkers, say they saw plenty wrong
in the strawberry fields they worked, starting with the dogs, birds and deer
that lay lifeless when the workers arrived to remove plastic sheeting from fumigated
fields. "That's how we knew this was a dangerous chemical," Ruiz said.
His own symptoms added concern. "My eyes watered. I threw up. It gave
me headaches," he said.
Ruiz and Jorge Fernandez say they developed nervousness and depression by the
time they stopped working in 2003. They saw the plastic come loose in high winds
or leak when animals punctured it. Other workers had symptoms, they said, but
kept silent because they feared for their jobs.
The two are in a disability dispute with their former employer, who denies
allegations that workers were forced to remove plastic sooner than required.
Growers feel hamstrung. Despite millions of dollars spent on research, no alternative
addresses all soils and pests as well as methyl bromide, they say.
"It just works so good and just does so many things so well," said
Mike Miller, a strawberry grower in Salinas, Calif.
He and other farmers believe the fumigant is safe when used correctly.
"I'm comfortable working with the product and educating our personnel,"
said Jim Grainger, a fourth-generation farmer who grows 700 acres of steak tomatoes
Among those pushing for continued exemptions are financial heavy hitters such
as the family of Floyd Gottwald, vice chairman of methyl bromide producer Albemarle
Corp. of Richmond, Va. The Gottwalds contributed more than $420,000 to President
Bush's campaigns and to national Republican Party organizations over the past
The size of the U.S. inventory of methyl bromide inventory is secret. The EPA
refuses to disclose how much, saying the figure is confidential business information.
Doniger's group says in a suit against the agency that the amount exceeds 11,000
Its continued use makes people such as Lynda Uvari uneasy.
In her Southern California neighborhood of Ventura, people thought they had
the flu a few years back. Then they noticed that their illness coincided with
fumigation of a nearby field. They settled a suit with the strawberry grower.
Now Uvari wonders about methyl bromide's legacy, even whether it could be linked
to her son's endocrine problems.
"That's in the back of our minds all the time," Uvari said. "You