October 8, 2004

Pesticide Persisting Beyond Scheduled Elimination Date



WATSONVILLE, Calif. - Planting time is near in John Steinbeck's old haunts. A fork on the back of a tanker-tractor dips 12 inches down into the soil and emits a gaseous cocktail to kill any fungus or micro-organism that could threaten next spring's strawberries. Mexican workers, wearing antiseptic white suits but no face masks, follow close behind, tamping down the white plastic sheeting that covers the loamy fields.

They are fumigating Will Garroutte's strawberry fields with methyl bromide, a pesticide so witheringly effective it is a farmer's dream. But it is not an environmentalist's.

Methyl bromide is considered more destructive to the protective ozone layer in the stratosphere than some banned chemicals and has been linked to an increased risk of prostate cancer in farm workers.

After a decade in which the use of the fumigant decreased by more than 70 percent among developed nations, consumption of methyl bromide is poised to rise next year. That has environmentalists worried.

Under a treaty known as the Montreal Protocol, the chemical was to be banned for most uses by the end of this year. But local and international politics have allowed methyl bromide to elude elimination the way some stubborn bacteria resist antibiotics.

The United States, on behalf of strawberry growers like Mr. Garroutte in California, tomato growers in Florida and other agribusinesses, has already obtained international approval for a 16 percent increase in consumption next year over the nation's reported use in 2003. This has happened through a new process that provides for exemptions from the ban in the case of "critical uses.'' With approval in hand for the use of 8,942 tons of methyl bromide in 2005, compared with 7,659 tons in 2003, the government is now seeking to add 840 tons to the permissible amount in next year's total.

Like the United States, other developed countries are now seeking new exemptions from the treaty, and environmentalists fear a domino effect. Although the amount of methyl bromide currently at issue is less than 1 percent of ozone-depleting chemicals, the gas quickly attacks the ozone layer, which scientists say is now beginning to heal itself.

"The United States has been the driving force for the protocol up until now," said David Doniger, who is policy director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. "This is the first time the U.S. is driving in reverse."

Environmental Protection Agency officials disagree. "I don't think it's fair to say we're headed in the opposite direction," said Jeffrey R. Holmstead, the assistant administrator for air and radiation at the agency. "We are committed to completing the phase-out, but in a way that allows the temporary continued exemptions for critical uses."

The Montreal Protocol has eliminated 97 percent of ozone-depleting substances, James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, said, adding, "The U.S. has led the way."

He added, "The fact we are now focused on a discussion that deals with one-tenth of one percent of our commitment to reduce is the signature of just how successful this effort has been." Rodger Wesson of the California Strawberry Commission in Watsonville said: "Everybody's agreed we want to have a healthy, protective ozone layer. What's the best way to accomplish that?"

Technological improvements in gas containment, he says, suggest that some more limited use of methyl bromide at the local level could be possible while still protecting the ozone layer.

The international community has, in gross terms, made significant progress in phasing out methyl bromide since 1992. That was when the chemical was added, under the Montreal Protocol, to a list of chemicals whose unabated use would thin the ozone layer and thus increase the risk of skin cancer.

The latest data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration show that the rate at which methyl bromide is being eliminated from the atmosphere has slowed by about 50 percent in the last two years, compared with the previous four years. Stephen Montzka, a research scientist with NOAA, said that he could not determine from his data whether manmade emissions or a natural occurence, like a bad fire season, account for the change.

This summer, after the United States's request for exemptions, other countries including Israel, New Zealand and Germany applied for the right to use more of the chemical that they had been learning to do without.

Jiri Hlavacek, the Czech Republic's representative to the Montreal Protocol meetings, is perplexed and dismayed by the sudden thirst for the chemical.

"Why is it such big countries and economically strong countries like the United States," he said, "are not able to speed up the process of seeking alternatives for these plants and for the treatment of the soil?"

Requests for 2006 exemptions, led by the United States, Italy and Spain, already exceed the amounts granted for 2005, Mr. Hlavacek said.

Mr. Garroutte, a second-generation Watsonville farmer who is 59, finds economic pressure in all directions. To keep his profit margins up, he must lease more land each year. By law, he leaves a buffer between his fumigated fields and schools.

He believes that methyl bromide has increased his production by as much 30 percent. "You can say whatever you want about whether methyl bromide is good or bad," he said. "But we have to be profitable."

Still, Mr. Garroutte says he understands the need for methyl bromide replacements. "The most important thing is to get alternatives on a greased track and get them here."

Mr. Wesson of the strawberry commission also expresses frustration that there are not enough new compounds to try. The federal Department of Agriculture has spent $150 million over a decade on the development of alternatives, but the only one that has taken any hold in the Watsonville area is organic farming, which has a fierce proponent in Vanessa Bogenholm. More than a decade ago, when she was working in the University of California's agricultural extension office, her original assignment was testing methyl bromide alternatives.

Her primary strategy is a complicated interseasonal rotation of strawberries, barley, lettuce and other crops, which gives her peak production ranging from 70 percent to 90 percent of a nonorganic farmer's. To compensate, she can command a higher price among customers, including farmers' markets and chains like Whole Foods.

Besides, she said, she will not expose her workers to a chemical associated with cancer risk. A study published last year in a medical journal, based on a study of 55,000 farm workers, showed that those exposed to methyl bromide were two to four times more likely to develop prostate cancer than their peers.

In a recent interview, two men who have spent a decade behind methyl bromide applications, complained of persistent dizziness, headaches, blurred vision and memory impairments. They reported that they were frequently instructed to remove the protective plastic from the fields long before the required waiting period had elapsed and the chemical had dispersed.

"My eyes watered, I couldn't breathe," said one of the men, Jorge Fernandez, as a lawyer translated. "I felt dizzy, like I was going to faint." Complaints to his boss, who worked for a local applicator company that Mr. Fernandez did not identify, provoked mocking responses that questioned his manhood, he said.

Mr. Wesson, of the strawberry commission, said: "The materials we use for agriculture have to be respected. If they are not handled properly or by people with the right protective equipment, we have problems." He said, he does not believe a complete elimination of the fumigant will ever be necessary. "Maybe it gets to some other low percentage," while technological improvements protect the ozone layer.

This attitude, Mr. Doniger feels, could spread beyond the United States to other developed nations. "There are individual countries who say: Hey, if America has its hand in the cupboard, we'll stick our hands in, too," he said.

Mr. Holmstead of the E.P.A. said: "We are committed to the protocol. But the coverage of methyl bromide was contingent on critical use exemptions." With the advent of new alternatives and application techniques, he said, "we are quite confident that the phase-out will continue and be successful."