US growers continue to request time with the notorious Methyl Bromide
“Critical” exemptions slow a world-wide phase-out of the deadly chemical
Methyl bromide (MBr) is a pesticide widely used in agriculture as a fumigant. An incredibly potent sterilizer known for its toxicity to a broad range of life forms, methyl bromide is the most notorious depleter of the earth’s ozone layer, which shields us from the sun’s radiation. The international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol initiated a world phase-out of this chemical in 1988 in order to stop the destruction of the ozone layer, and the US incorporated the phaseout into the Clean Air Act in 1990. The Montreal Protocol is widely considered to be the most effective environmental treaty ever negotiated, but its integrity has been undermined over the last decade by the US’s consistent attempts to win exemptions for US agriculture.
Under the Protocol’s total phase-out of Methyl Bromide, the ozone hole (measured at 25 million km2 in 2008) would take about 50 years to recover completely. The destruction of the ozone layer makes people far more vulnerable to skin cancers and cataracts. Methyl bromide itself is suspected of causing prostate cancer in farmers and farm workers who use it, and because of its high toxicity, many farm workers have been disabled and even killed by exposure to this notorious poison.
Farmers worldwide have achieved drastic reductions in MB use over the last decade, and the total phase-out was to be completed by 2005. However, the Montreal Protocol has allowed indefinite exemptions for "critical" uses of the chemical, and American agribusiness interests have pursued them vigorously, thus far with the active support of the US government. In North Carolina, strawberry, tomato, pepper, cucurbit and forest nursery growers all received "critical use" exemptions from the phase-out in 2009, as did producers of dry-cured pork products who fumigate country ham storage areas with MBr. The US uses approximately 30% of the world’s methyl bromide (21,000 tons annually).
US exemptions this year total 4.26 million kg, allowing US growers to continue using MB in 2009 at almost 17% of 1991 levels, the year the phase-out began. These “critical use” exemptions also allow the continued manufacture and import of methyl bromide, despite charges that the chemical’s two manufacturers (Chemtura in the United States, and Israel Chemicals) have been stockpiling unnecessary stores of the chemical while simultaneously inflating prices due to “shortages” of the chemical.
EPA could protect the Methyl Bromide phase-out with a few straightforward steps:
- Require MB users to report exactly how much of the chemical they are using, instead of relying on inflated estimates.
- Require MB’s manufacturer to inventory and report their stockpiles of the chemical in order to avoid over-production to meet “critical use” needs.
- Carry out safety testing of MB required under the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, in order to eliminate the shoddy worker protection and safety requirements that give MB a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
- Accelerate the registration of safer alternatives to MB, and provide incentives for farmers to implement non-chemical alternatives.
New fumigant buffer zones:
EPA recently enacted new rules to protect neighbors of operations that use soil-injected fumigants, including methyl bromide. The new buffer zones came about after several high-profile poisoning incidents in California, and are intended to reduce the drift of toxic pesticide gases onto neighboring homes.
For more information:
* US EPA Methyl Bromide Phaseout Information
* Pesticide Action Network's Alternatives to Methyl Bromide update
* NRDC's press release on Critical Use Exemptions
* NRDC's press release on unnecessary Methyl Bromide over-production
latest news on Methyl Bromide
(syndicated from Environmental Health News.)
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