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Push Back the Poison: Ban Methyl Bromide

by Joshua KarlinerCorpWatch
March 31st, 1997

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The battle over the fumigant methyl bromide is a debate that has raged through the California State government, the U.S. Congress, the White House, and the halls of the United Nations. It is a controversy whose reverberations can be felt in the agricultural heartlands of California and Florida, as well as in nearly every place where the sun shines. Indeed, the outcome of this dispute will determine the future health of workers and local communities currently exposed to methyl bromide poisoning. Resolution of this debate will also largely dictate just how big the hole in the stratospheric ozone layer will become, and just how many people will die of skin cancer.

Methyl bromide is a silent killer. Colorless and odorless, it is highly toxic to a wide spectrum of organisms, including human beings. Due to its lethal nature -- its proficiency in causing neurological damage, reproductive harm and other types of poisonings -- the State of California has been on the verge of banning it for the past decade. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified methyl bromide as a Class I acute toxin. Due to the threat it poses to the ozone layer, methyl bromide has also been listed as a Class I Ozone Depletor under the United States Clean Air Act, requiring it to be phased out by the year 2001. The United Nations Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer has also determined that methyl bromide is a first class ozone destroyer and is moving to phase it out on a global scale.

In fact, methyl bromide would be fast on its way out today if it weren't for a small handful of corporations, industry associations and elected officials which have worked stealthily and assiduously to keep this deadly product on the market and in the field. Thus our third CorpWatch Issue takes aim at these Barons of Bromide. Enter the realm of the Barons. There you will see their castle, and when you enter this citadel you will find a rap sheet on the crimes and misdeeds of each Bromide Baron.

Together these rap sheets paint a picture of an industry run amok -- of chemical transnationals and agribusiness conspiring to decide the fate of the Earth based on their bottom lines. It shows how corporations such as Sun-Diamond Growers have paid politicians like California Governor Pete Wilson and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy to keep methyl bromide in the field. It documents how corporations such as Great Lakes Chemicals and TriCal have built industry associations that lobby Congress in an attempt to undermine the Clean Air Act, and which work around the clock to prevent the Montreal Protocol from implementing a global ban. Written and produced by CorpWatch partner TRAC, together with the San Francisco-based Political Ecology Group, these rap sheets are extracted from a larger report our organizations will jointly release in April.

The health and environmental effects of methyl bromide are well documented. There is a broad scientific consensus that it should be phased out. For this feature its toxic effects are delineated by the Pesticide Action Network, while its ozone detroying properties are described by the organization Ozone Action. Perhaps more powerful than these analyses and the myriad of links we provide to reputable scientific sources however, is the first hand experience of those in the fields.

The people who feel methyl bromide's toxic impacts most acutely are the immigrant farmworkers who labor in and live adjacent to where strawberries, tomatoes and other crops are grown, and which are regularly fumigated by methyl bromide. In this Feature you will find testimony by and photographs of workers directly effected by this deadly pesticide. And, as CorpWatch's interview with United Farm Workers (UFW) leader Dolores Huerta explains, her organization has been on the front lines for a long time, calling for a methyl bromide ban since 1984 during the grape boycott.

The largest use of methyl bromide today is on strawberries. Strawberry workers often live in miserable conditions beside the fields and are regularly exposed to the chemical's toxic drift. The largest union organizing drive in the country today is also in the strawberry fields -- a joint effort between the UFW and the AFL-CIO. As Huerta argues, a unionized workforce provides better wages and more just working conditions, including protection from pesticide poisoning.

The methyl bromide issue creates an opportunity to push back the poison and protect workers, community health and the global ecosystem. As a browsing of the links in our alternatives section will show, there is no single "magic bullet" drop-in chemical substitute for the deadly pesticide. This means that the phase-out of methyl bromide can help break the cycle of one hazardous chemical replacing another and instead help foster a broader transition to ecologically sound, non-chemical agriculture. For this fundamental change to occur however, a transition of another sort must also take place.

That a handful of corporations should become such important players in determining crucial questions of human rights and health, as well as global security points to the increasingly disproportionate political power that corporations wield. The absence of societal mechanisms to reign in this corporate power and suboridinate it to a more democratic process is at the root of the problem that the Barons of Bromide present.

Banning methyl bromide while simultaneously promoting the transformation to non-chemical agriculture will require fostering greater democratic control over corporations in general. This in turn, demands building broad based movements for fundamental change.

-- Joshua Karliner, for the CorpWatch Editorial Board