An Ill Wind
Reports & Consumer Guides
An Ill Wind
More than 2.3 million pounds of the acutely toxic pesticide methyl bromide were applied near 455 public schools in California in 1998, according to state records of pesticide use analyzed by the Environmental Working Group. Methyl bromide, a volatile nerve gas, is a Category 1 acute toxin, the most hazardous classification of toxic chemicals, and causes birth defects and brain and nervous system damage at low doses in animal experiments.
State enrollment figures show that 68,238 children attended 87 schools that were 1.5 miles or less from fields treated with at least 10,000 pounds of methyl bromide in 1998. The potential for exposure was greatest in the coastal counties of Central California, where vast amounts of methyl bromide are applied to strawberry fields. The chemical, used in agriculture to sterilize fields before planting, is also used in warehouses to fumigate harvested commodities before shipping and in homes to kill termites and other insects.
Twelve schools -- five in Monterey County, three in Ventura County, three in Santa Barbara County and one in Santa Cruz County -- were within 1.5 miles of fields with more than 45,000 pounds of methyl bromide use in 1998, and three of these schools were near more than 100,000 pounds of use. (Table 1.) Use near these highest-risk schools is increasing sharply.
Statewide methyl bromide use in 1998, the latest year for which data is available, was 13.9 million pounds. (CDPR 1999a.) The fact that more than one-sixth of that total was applied near schools is of particular concern, because the fumigant is typically applied as a volatile gas which is injected into the soil, then covered with plastic tarps in an attempt to keep the compound from drifting away. Air monitoring tests conducted by both the state and EWG show that after a field is treated with methyl bromide, potentially harmful levels of the gas routinely drift onto nearby properties and can remain in the air for 48 hours or longer. (CDPR 1997, EWG 1997a.)
The state's currently proposed methyl bromide regulations, issued under a court order 11 years after they were required by law, will not adequately protect schoolchildren and surrounding communities. Although the administration of Gov. Gray Davis is touting its reluctant compliance with the law as proof of its commitment to stronger environmental protections, in some cases the proposed regulations call for smaller protective buffer zones than were in effect during the Wilson Administration. Despite repeated recommendations from DPR's own scientists, they do not provide an extra margin of safety to protect children. Nor do they adequately restrict methyl bromide use near schools, allowing application of the chemical in adjacent fields when students and others are present for after-school activities or community events.
EWG's computer-assisted analysis of California's 1998 Pesticide Use Reporting database found:
- Although total statewide use of methyl bromide appears to be decreasing in recent years, its use is intensifying near the schools already most at risk of exposure. At the ten schools located near the greatest amount of methyl bromide use in 1998, use was up by 231,000 pounds since 1995 - a 41 percent increase in four growing seasons. (Fig. 1.)
- Methyl bromide use near schools is heaviest in Ventura, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. Of all California children who attended schools within 1.5 miles of more than 25,000 pounds of methyl bromide use, 70 percent - more than 28,000 - were in one of the three counties. Of the 43 schools within 1.5 miles of more than 25,000 pounds of use, 29 are in those three counties. (Many California schools are far closer than 1.5 miles to methyl bromide applications. About one-third of the schools in EWG's analysis are half a mile or less from application sites, and dozens of schools are known by observation to be directly adjacent to fields where methyl bromide and other toxic pesticides are used.)
- In areas of heavy methyl bromide use, some students face potential exposure not just once or twice per season, but many times a year. Thirty different schools were within 1.5 miles of fields that were treated with at least 100 pounds of methyl bromide on 15 or more different days, and one - Bonsall Elementary in San Diego County - averaged nearly one nearby application a week. (Table 2.) In light of this it is troubling that the proposed regulations do not even attempt to regulate long-term exposures.
- Potential exposure to methyl bromide at schools falls disproportionately on children of color. Demographic information available for the ten schools nearest the most methyl bromide use in 1998 shows that 85 percent of the students enrolled were non-Anglo and 76% were Latino. (Table 3.) Four of these ten high-risk schools were more than 90 percent Latino.1
- Although Central Coast counties use much more methyl bromide than any other part of the state, thousands of children in other areas also face potential exposure to large amounts of the chemical. In Orange County, more than 35,000 children attended 40 schools within 1.5 miles of 79,000 pounds of methyl bromide use, and in Fresno County, more than 26,000 students attended 45 schools near 97,000 pounds of use.
- Measured by crop, strawberries account for over half of the methyl bromide applied near California schools, with 1.2 million pounds in 1998. This was nearly five times more than the next highest use, preplant soil fumigation of otherwise unspecified crops.
Tens of thousands of California children are at risk of exposure to methyl bromide while attending school, playing on school grounds, or simply living in their neighborhoods near these schools. Schools are unique environments, and parents have a right to know their kids' classrooms are safe and healthy.
But schools are also symbols of a community: Where there are schools, there are houses full of families. The potential for exposure to methyl bromide is a risk that is not restricted to schools in predominantly agricultural areas, but exists in rural, suburban and urban communities across California.
This year, under a court order, California is belatedly complying with a 1989 state law requiring adoption of methyl bromide regulations. (FOE 1999.) The Department of Pesticide Regulation's proposed rules were released in January and will be the subject of public hearings in March.
Then the National Academy of Sciences is expected to issue a peer review of DPR's methyl bromide risk assessment, the document that is the basis for setting "safe" levels of methyl bromide exposure. The regulations that emerge from this process are scheduled to take effect in June 2000.
Based on evidence of methyl bromide's acute toxicity, extreme volatility and its heavy use near schools and homes, EWG urges that the final regulations include the following provisions:
- Methyl bromide applications should be banned at all times within 1,000 feet of schools, daycare centers, nursing homes and residences.
- Standards for "acceptable" levels of methyl bromide exposure must provide an extra tenfold margin of safety for children.
- All schools, other facilities and residences within 1 mile should be notified in writing of upcoming methyl bromide applications.
- The Legislature should immediately increase funding for research into less-toxic alternatives to methyl bromide, and for incentives and assistance to farmers switching from methyl bromide to non-chemical alternatives.
- All replacements for methyl bromide - chemical and non-chemical - must be shown to have reduced environmental and health risk. The potential health risks of proposed chemical alternatives to methyl bromide, including Telone (1,3-D), metam sodium and chloropicrin, must be fully evaluated before their continued use is allowed within 1,000 feet of any school.