Thanks to the Bush administration, farmworkers and many other Americans will continue to be exposed to methyl bromide, one of the most dangerous of the pesticides that seriously endanger public health.
Methyl bromide is so toxic that an international treaty signed by more than 180 nations in 1987, the Montreal Protocol, banned its use worldwide as of 2005. But there’s a gaping loophole in the treaty that the administration slipped through last year and again this month to allow U.S. growers to keep using thousands of tons of the poison through at least 2008.
Despite the objections of European nations and the treaty staff’s technical committee, the United States was again granted an exemption from the ban by invoking a provision in the treaty that allows methyl bromide to be used if there are no feasible alternatives.
U.S. representatives claimed that strawberry growers and growers of more than 100 other crops in California, Florida and other states must use methyl bromide in order to kill insects, rodents and diseases that threaten the crops. They also claim to need it for weeding and to fumigate food processing and storage areas and produce shipped to foreign markets.
Yet as growers in other countries have shown, there are chemicals and alternative farming methods that are as effective as methyl bromide, but do not create serious health hazards. No matter, say U.S. authorities, the other methods would cost too much and put U.S. growers at a competitive disadvantage with foreign growers who use poorly paid laborers rather than pesticides to control weeds and pests.
The international communityÃ‚¹s main concern has been that widespread use of methyl bromide is seriously damaging the earth’s protective ozone layer and thus subjecting people everywhere to the possibility of skin cancer, cataracts and other ailments caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation.
But of at least equal concern should be the severe effect the pesticide is having on the hundreds of thousands of people who are needlessly exposed to it. Methyl bromide, which is actually a nerve gas, can do severe damage to the brain and nervous systems of those exposed to it, and to their lungs, kidneys, eyes and skin. It can cause birth defects. It can kill.
At the least, victims may experience uncontrollable trembling, vomiting, blackouts, impaired memories, pounding headaches, persistent dizziness, blurred vision, 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 farmworkers and others working directly with methyl bromide, but also people who have been exposed as it drifted from areas where it was being used. That’s included children in nearby schools and residents of nearby homes.
There have been thousands of documented instances of such
problems over the past two decades, as well as plenty of scientific evidence that methyl bromideÃ‚¹s use is indeed seriously damaging the ozone layer.
It’s ridiculous for the Bush administration to nevertheless argue for continued use of the pesticide because of the higher cost of alternatives and supposed competitive pressures from foreign growers who use cheaper methods of pest control.
The United States has by far the world’s largest, most profitable and most successfully competitive agricultural industry. It’s an industry, however, that’s dominated by some of President Bush’s wealthiest corporate backers. He obviously is eager to help them avoid having to use some of their profits to make the environment cleaner and safer for the rest of us, including their own workers.
[Copyright © 2006 Dick Meister, who has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.]