9. U.S. Chemical Industry Fights For Toxic Ozone-Killing Pesticide

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

SOURCE: EARTH ISLAND JOURNAL, Summer 1995, “Campaign Against Methyl Bromide: Ozone-Killing Pesticide Opposed”;* Author: Anne Schonfield

SYNOPSIS: Methyl bromide is a pesticide that is at least 50 times more destructive to the ozone layer, atom for atom, than chlorofluoro-carbons (CFCs) yet America’s chemical industry is fighting to prevent it from being banned.

In 1992, the United Nations estimated that the bromine atoms released into the upper atmosphere are responsible for five-to-ten percent of global ozone depletion, a share that is expected to increase to 15 percent by the year 2000.

In 1994, the UN listed elimination of methyl bromide (MB) as the most significant remaining approach (after phase-out of CFCs and halons) to reducing ozone depletion. UN scientists conclude that eliminating MB emissions from agricultural, structural, and industrial activities by the year 2001 would achieve a 13 percent reduction in ozone-depleting chemicals reaching the atmosphere over the next 50 years.

MB also is extremely toxic and can cause acute and chronic health effects. Farmworkers, pesticide applicators, and people living or working where MB is used can suffer poisoning, neurological damage and reproductive harm. The chemical is so toxic to humans and animals that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies it as a Category 1 acute toxin, the most deadly group of substances.

For 60 years, MB has been used to kill pests in soils and buildings, and on agricultural products. In 1991, the US accounted for nearly 40 percent of the pesticide’s worldwide use. Soil fumigation to sterilize soil before planting crops is by far the largest use of MB in the US Worldwide, most MB is used for luxury and export crops, like tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, tobacco and nursery crops.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has mandated a halt to MB production in, and import to, the US in 2001—but manufacturers and agricultural users have mounted a formidable campaign to delay the ban. Because no gradual phaseout is required, methyl bromide can be used without major restrictions until 2001. Since the act does not prohibit the use of existing stocks after 2001, application of the pesticide can continue as long as stockpiled supplies last.

The Methyl Bromide Global Coalition (MBGC)—a group of eight international MB users and producers—has launched a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to keep the product on the market. A leaked document from the Methyl Bromide Working Group, which includes Ethyl Corp. and Great Lakes Chemical Corp., the country’s major MB producers, ignores reports of record ozone depletion, and states, “If we continue to work together, we stand an increasingly good chance of being able to use methyl bromide well beyond the year 2001.”

While some nations are actively fighting a phaseout, other countries have already banned or vigorously regulated MB. In 1992, the Netherlands eliminated all soil fumigation using MB, and other countries, including Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, are planning similar actions.

SSU Censored Researcher: Brad Hood

COMMENTS: Despite press releases to nearly 400 journalists, follow-up calls to many of them, and the distribution of 2,500 briefing kits, the methyl bromide issue received limited coverage in some local newspapers and no coverage by network TV, the news weeklies,k or major dailies, according to investigative writer Anne Schonfield. In general, she added, “New scientific reports about continuing ozone depletion, and methyl bromide in particular, received little media attention in the US (while in Canada, for example, ozone depletion and UV-B exposure are regularly covered in weather reports on TV). Down under, in Australia, Chile and New Zealand, coverage is also common.

“Methyl bromide is a classic illustration of the interconnected hazards caused by synthetic pesticides. This invisible, odorless gas is extremely dangerous to farm workers, to people who live or work near where it is used and those who re-enter fumigated structures, causing health problems ranging from mild irritation to death. If Americans knew more about methyl bromide, they would think twice about buying conventionally-grown strawberries and Florida tomatoes (which are almost universally produced with methyl bromide) and other crops that may look wholesome but are actually harming farmworkers and killing the soil.

“Moreover, methyl bromide is destroying the ozone layer. It is this global impact, well-documented by international science panels, that should be generating media coverage. However, Americans seem to believe that ozone depletion has been taken care of since many countries have banned CFCs, the most well-known ozone depletors. In fact, ozone depletion continues to worsen every year and is expected to peak around 1998.

“The producers of methyl bromide (primarily Great Lakes Chemical and Albemarle Corporation in the US and Dead Sea Bromine in Israel) certainly benefit from the lack of exposure on this issue (interestingly, both U.S.-based companies have production facilities in Arkansas), as do the specialized companies that inject the chemical into the soil (such as Trical in California). The producers and major users are actively debunking the science of ozone depletion and point to their investments in alternatives (not surprisingly, they’re focused on chemical alternatives rather than those that will not produce fat agrichemical corporate profits).”

Schonfield adds that there is a coalition of 17 consumer, health, environmental justice and labor groups, called the Methyl Bromide Alternatives Network, working to increase media attention and public awareness of methyl bromide. The coalition ranges from big organizations like Friends of the Earth and NRDC to farmworker self-help groups, black southern farm co-ops and labor unions. But despite numerous press releases, petitions, editorial calls and wide distribution of briefing kits, “it has been very difficult to get more than occasional media attention to this issue (usually from freelancers), and it has not been picked up by wire services, papers of recored, or the networks.”

On December 10, 1995, The New YHork Times reported that more than 100 governments agreed to phase out developed countries’ production of methyl bromide. The agreement called for the manufacture of methyl bromide to be cut by 25 percent by 2001, 50 percent by 2005, and 100 percent by 2010. It also noted that parties to the accord will meet in 1996 to consider allowing exemptions for “critical agricultural use.”