The Chemical That Must Not Be Named

Delegates from 191 nations are on the verge of an agreement under the Montreal Protocol for faster elimination of ozone-depleting chemicals, but the United States insists it must continue to use the banned pesticide methyl bromide.

MONTREAL - Even as another enormous ozone hole forms over the Antarctic this week, the rest of the world appears to be giving in to U.S. demands despite the fact that the use of methyl bromide in developed countries was supposed to have been completely phased out by Jan. 1, 2005 under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

'It's a black mark on this meeting. It is the chemical that must not be named,' said David Doniger, climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defence Council, a U.S. environmental group.

'There is a powerful lobby group of strawberry and vegetable growers in Washington,' Doniger told IPS.

Methyl bromide is a highly toxic fumigant pesticide which is injected into soil to sterilise it before planting crops. It is also used as a post-harvest decontaminant of products and storage areas. Although it is highly effective in eradicating pests such as nematodes, weeds, insects and rodents, it depletes the ozone layer and poses a danger to human health.

While alternatives exist for more than 93 percent of the applications of methyl bromide, some countries such as the U.S., Japan and Israel claimed that because of regulatory restrictions, availability, cost and local conditions, they had little choice but to continue its use as a pest control. And so despite the ban, the Montreal Protocol allows 'critical use exemptions' for countries to continue to use banned substances for a short period of time until they can find a substitute.

In 2006, the United States received an exemption to use 8,000 tonnes of methyl bromide, compared to 5,000 tonnes for the rest of the developed world combined.

At the 19th Meeting of the Parties here in Montreal, the committee reporting on methyl bromide use reported 'excellent progress' in the continuing phase-out of the chemical and that not many applications for critical use exemptions had been received. The notable exception continues to be the U.S., which has applied for 6,500 tonnes for 2008 and 5,000 tonnes for 2009, even as the rest of the developed world has dropped significantly to just 1,900 and 1,400 tonnes, respectively.

The delegate from Switzerland expressed concern that some countries were asking for large amounts and that 40 percent of the stocks were not being used for critical uses. The United States maintains a large inventory of methyl bromide in excess of 8,000 tonnes, but the U.S. representative said these would be used up by 2009.

Emissions of methyl bromide have an immediate impact on the ozone layer, noted Janos Mate of Greenpeace International.

'Scientists think it has three to 10 times the impact of other chemicals,' Mate told IPS.

The ozone layer will be at its 'most delicate' over next few decades before it begins to significantly recover. Climate change is slowing this recovery, and the impacts are not fully understood, he said.

The ozone layer is the part of the atmosphere 25 kilometres up that acts as a shield protecting life on Earth from damaging ultraviolet rays, which can cause sunburns, skin cancer and cataracts. The rays can also harm marine life.

In the past two years, ozone holes larger than Europe have opened over the Antarctic and Southern Ocean. The World Metrological Organisation reported this week that the hole is back and bigger than ever. And it could grow larger as spring returns to the southern hemisphere.

Climate change appears to playing a role in the formation of these holes. Paradoxically, as the Earth warms at the surface, in the polar regions the upper atmosphere is getting colder, creating just the right conditions for chemicals like chlorine and bromine to destroy ozone.

Last year, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder discovered that winds circling high above the far northern hemisphere have a much greater impact on upper stratospheric ozone levels than previously thought. Those winds appear to be increasing with climate change, translating into less ozone in the upper stratosphere.

Meantime, the U.S. growers lobby group is upset that the U.S. delegation isn't pushing for higher volumes of methyl bromide, claiming that they could get far higher amounts under the Protocol's rules because economically viable alternatives are not yet available.

'It's time to inject some common sense into this process,' said Charles Hall of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association in a statement.

U.S. growers have never understood that methyl bromide is destroying the ozone layer, said Doniger.

Italy, Greece and Spain have nearly eliminated their use in agriculture, he added.

'We're all suffering with a thinner ozone layer just to benefit a few U.S. companies,' said Mate.

(c) 2007 IPS - Inter Press Service

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