Methyl bromide is one of the most damaging of the pesticides that increasingly threaten the Earth's ozone layer -- so damaging that an international treaty, the Montreal Protocol, has ordered it banned worldwide as of next year. Yet the Bush administration is seeking to exempt many of the pesticide's U.S. users from the treaty.
The international community's main concern is that depletion of the Earth's protective ozone layer subjects people everywhere to the possibility of skin cancer, cataracts and other ailments caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation.
That's true, certainly. But of more immediate concern should be the severe effect the pesticide is having on the hundreds of thousands of farmworkers and other Americans who are regularly exposed to methyl bromide because of its widespread use in agriculture and other industries.
U.S. growers of strawberries, grapes, ornamental plants and more than 100 other crops spray methyl bromide on the soil to kill insects and weeds and use it to fumigate produce shipped to and from foreign markets. It is used in flour mills and grain storage facilities, and to treat golf course sod and rid warehouses and other buildings of pests.
As any user of methyl bromide will tell you, it is a very effective pest killer. But as any public health worker will also tell you, the pesticide is a nerve gas that can do severe damage to the brain and nervous systems of those exposed to it, and to their lungs, kidneys, eyes and skin, according to the Environmental Defense Fund and others. It can cause birth defects. It can kill.
At the least, victims experience trembling, vomiting, blackouts, pounding headaches, fainting, nausea, swollen lips and tongue, unusual muscle pain, inflamed skin, fatigue and numbness in their hands, feet, arms and legs. Those affected have included not just people working directly with the pesticide, but others who have been exposed as it drifted from fields and buildings that were being sprayed. That has included children in nearby schools and residents of nearby homes.
Effective, safe alternatives to methyl bromide are available. But growers complain they would cost more and put them at a competitive disadvantage with foreign growers who use poorly paid laborers rather than pesticides to control weeds and pests. That's right, U.S. growers -- who, as the United Farm Workers union can attest, pay their workers an average of less than $8 an hour, or less than $10,000 a year, and provide few, if any, fringe benefits -- are complaining about competition from cheap foreign labor as an excuse to subject their miserably paid workers to poison.
There is another bit of fine irony here in that growers of the tobacco that poisons many Americans and millions of others throughout the world are among those arguing for the continued use of the pesticide. Administration officials will make their formal request to exempt growers of tobacco seedlings and other users of methyl bromide from the ban at a meeting this month of parties to the treaty that in 1987 set a timetable for outlawing substances that harm the ozone layer.
The administration demands threaten to all but undo the genuine progress that has been made since the Montreal Protocol was signed. In those 17 years, use of the pesticide has dropped by 70 percent worldwide. But the U.S. action, the first by any country to try to upset a decision to phase out a substance and increase its production, undoubtedly would cause a surge in worldwide use of methyl bromide. It would seriously undermine the treaty and reverse what has been a steady and hopeful trend toward a cleaner and safer environment for everyone.
Dick Meister (email@example.com) is a San Francisco freelance writer and a former labor correspondent for The Chronicle.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle