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Use of Soil Fumigant Still High Despite Ban

(Beyond Pesticides, September 12, 2011) While the fight continues over the use of toxic methyl iodide in California, new research is showing that the banned chemical methyl bromide, which methyl iodide was intended to replace, is continuing to be used in alarming amounts across the state due to a sizeable loophole in the regulations. While some may argue that this is simply a consequence of the controversy surrrounding methyl iodide, those concerned with human health and the environment point out that it is irresponsible and counterproductive to replace a devastating environmental contaminant with a highly toxic human carcinogen, especially when there are more responsible alternatives to both which can be employed.

Most methyl bromide is used to fumigate, or sterilize, agricultural soils, especially those growing strawberries, though it is used for other crops as well. It is also used in high amounts as a structural fumigant to eradicate indoor pests. The most common applications of this kind are for residential termite treatments and for insects in food storage facilities.

An investigation by New America Media has found that use of methyl bromide in California in 2009 was still at nearly 50% of levels from ten years prior, before the supposed ban was enacted. Counties that produce a high volume of strawberries saw an even smaller decline over that decade. Monterey County saw a drop of only 24%, while use in Santa Cruz County declined by 41%. The County of San Luis Obispo actually saw an increase over the ten year period, from 110,000 pounds applied in 1999 to 125,000 pounds in 2009.

Methyl Bromide has been nominally banned in industrialized countries by international treaty. The ban, which was included as part of the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances, is legally binding on all signatories to the treaty, of which the United States is one, having signed in 1987. It is also banned under federal law, as outlined in the Clean Air Act. These laws mandate that the substance be phased out according to a precise schedule, with 100% phase-out to be achieved by January 1, 2005. However, due to the “critical use exemption” (CUE) stipulation of the laws, which allows the chemical to continue to be used when there are no feasible alternatives, application rates have remained persistently high.

The substance has been banned due to its significant capacity to deplete the ozone layer of the atmosphere, which protects organisms living on the earth’s surface from damaging ultraviolet radiation. Additionally, acute exposure to humans, including those who spray the chemical, has been shown to cause eye and skin irritation as well as damage to the neurological, reproductive, and endocrine systems. Just two weeks ago, EPA acknowledged that, due to health concerns, there had been a violation of the civil rights of Latino school children in agricultural areas of California where methyl bromide was being applied, although the agency unfortunately offered no substantive relief to the individuals affected.

There has also been recent controversy over the proposed chemical replacement for methyl bromide in structural fumigation, sulfuryl fluoride. Due to concerns of fluoride overexposure, EPA cancelled sulfuryl fluoride use on stored food products in January of this year. Some environmental advocates worried that this could lead to a resurgence of reliance on methyl bromide CUEs, however, others, including EPA itself, do not believe that this will be the case and instead point to the wealth of other safer alternatives to control stored food pests, such as temperature manipulation.

The fact is that viable alternatives do already exist for all applications in which methyl bromide had been relied upon in the past, making CUEs entirely unnecessary. Organic strawberry growers are currently farming successfully in California without the environmental hazards of methyl bromide or the toxic dangers of methyl iodide. To learn more about organic food and farming see our organic webpage.

Source: Huffington Post


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