Seattle Times  [Printer-friendly version]
Monday, November 28, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: Corporate factory farms continue to use
methyl bromide on a wide variety of "critical" crops -- including
Christmas trees -- despite an international treaty ending its use in
2005 because it destroys Earth's ozone shield, kills some farm
workers, and makes others permanently sick. Merry Christmas from
President Bush.]

By Rita Beamish

Watsonville, Calif. -- Shoppers browse store displays 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 of red.

But strawberries are a painful subject for Guillermo Ruiz. The
farmworker believes his headaches, confusion and vision trouble stem
from a decade of working in the fields with methyl bromide, a
pesticide that protects the berries with stunning efficiency.

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 says.

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.

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 methyl bromide
remains available at least through 2008 by seeking and winning treaty

The administration's "fervent desire and goal" is to end the use of
methyl bromide, said Claudia McMurray, deputy assistant secretary of
state. However, she added, "I can't say to you that each year the
numbers [of pounds used] would automatically go down."

The reason is that farmers around the country are struggling to find a
suitable replacement for methyl bromide. Alternative organic
techniques are too costly, and substitute chemicals are not as
effective, growers say.

"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.

Plastic slows release

Methyl bromide is a colorless, odorless 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

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 2008.

That is not what the treaty envisioned, said David Doniger, senior
attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. In the 1990s, he
worked on the protocol as director of climate change 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.

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 family gave more
than $420,000 to President Bush's campaigns and to national Republican
Party organizations over the past six years.

With methyl bromide probably sticking around for several years, the
EPA is re-examining its health and safety standards.

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.

Guillermo Ruiz and Jorge Fernandez, two California farmworkers, say
they saw plenty wrong in the strawberry fields where 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.

Symptoms surface

His own symptoms added concern. "My eyes watered. I threw up. It gave
me headaches," he said.

Ruiz and Fernandez say they developed nervousness and depression by
the time they stopped work 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.