Thursday, February 8, 1996

Heavy Methyl Bromide Use Near California Schools

In 1993, fourteen people were made ill from routine application of methyl bromide in strawberry fields adjacent to subdivisions in Castroville, California. In 1995, residents of this same subdivision were poisoned again, after methyl bromide was applied to the same fields. In both cases, injury occurred even though all required actions to reduce human exposure to methyl bromide were employed. Since 1985 more than 1,600 Californians have been poisoned and hundreds more evacuated from schools and homes due to methyl bromide exposure (Brodberg et al. 1992). Methyl bromide is an extremely toxic pesticide, heavily used in the production of strawberries, flowers, and other high value specialty crops. It is applied as a gas, and naturally drifts into the surrounding community.

Our analysis of pesticide use data from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation shows that at least 826 elementary schools and day care centers were within 2 miles of 10,000 pounds or more methyl bromide use in 1992. Ten schools were within 2 miles of 100,000 pounds of methyl bromide use in that same year, and 321 elementary schools and day care centers were within 1.5 miles of 10,000 pounds of methyl bromide use in 1992. Two schools in Union City, in Alameda county, were within 1 mile of more than 40,000 pounds of methyl bromide use, followed by three schools in Ventura county within 1 mile of between 18,000 and 41,000 pounds of use.

In 1992, Ventura and Monterey counties had 131 and 112 elementary schools and day care centers respectively within 2 miles of 10,000 pounds or more methyl bromide use. Stanislaus county had 96 and Alameda county had 83. The top five (and 10 of the top 15) vulnerable schools in the state were located in Oxnard, in Ventura County. These top five elementary schools were within 2 miles of between 140,000 and 250,000 pounds of methyl bromide use in 1992.

Using one ton as an indicator of heavy use, Orange County had the most schools and day care facilities close to heavy methyl bromide use, with 83 elementary schools (with enrollment of 45,000), plus 212 day care centers within 2 miles of 2,000 pounds or more of methyl bromide applications.

This close proximity to major applications of methyl bromide raises serious questions about the safety and exposure of infants and children to this highly toxic pesticide.

Heavy Methyl Bromide Use in California

A minor percentage of methyl bromide use in California is for structural fumigation and post harvest quarantine fumigation of fruits and nuts. The majority of use in California and elsewhere is for soil fumigation to control nematodes and other soil borne pests.

Methyl bromide use in California is heavily concentrated on a small number of farms that produce high value crops like strawberries and flowers. Strawberries are the major users applying about 4.5 million pounds of methyl bromide to fields each year. Total methyl bromide use in California ranges from 15 to 20 million pounds per year.

The strawberry industry is dominated by a small number of large agribusiness-style growers who enjoy profits in an average year of $12,000 - $15,000 per acre. Just 124 strawberry operations (20%), control 76 percent of the California acreage and produce 83 and 66 percent of the California and national strawberry crop respectively (USDA 1993). These same 124 farms use at least 3.4 million pounds of methyl bromide annually, about 20 percent of statewide use for all purposes. Other high use crops include grapes, flowers, seedbeds and greenhouses. Much of this heavy agricultural methyl bromide use takes place in relatively urbanized areas such as Orange, San Diego, Alameda and Ventura counties. From 35-60% of the methyl bromide used for soil fumigation drifts into the air around the field, regardless of measures taken to keep it in place, such as tarpaulins placed over treated fields (UNEP 1992).

Methyl Bromide Use Near California Schools

When methyl bromide is applied to a home for structural fumigation, California regulations require that all occupants in the adjacent homes are notified and in some cases evacuated for several days. When methyl bromide is applied in fields adjacent to homes, schools, or businesses, no notification is required by the state.

When methyl bromide is emitted from the stack of a fumigation facility, it is regulated by the California Air Toxic Hot Spot Information and Assessment Act of 1987. Under this law, substantial reductions in methyl bromide emissions have been required to protect the public as far as two miles from the fumigation facilities. When methyl bromide is applied in agricultural fields, no risk assessments are made, and buffer zones as little as 30 feet are employed. This is not because applications to fields are safer than structural treatment, nor is it because less methyl bromide is used.

Recognizing the hazards of agricultural methyl bromide applications, in 1993 the California Department of Pesticide Regulation proposed warning zones around fields where methyl bromide was to be applied. These proposed warning zones extended as far as four miles from agricultural applications, depending on the pounds of methyl bromide applied per acre (CEPA 1993). Ultimately, however, the warning zone proposal was scrapped by the state. In the interim, methyl bromide applications in close proximity to schools, homes, and businesses appears to have increased.

To better understand the hazards to people and the magnitude of methyl bromide applications that occur within these proposed warning zones, the Environmental Working Group analyzed California pesticide use information from 1992, in combination with information on the location of schools and day care centers across the state.

At least 1,865 schools and day care centers statewide were within 2 miles of at least 2,000 pounds, one ton, of methyl bromide application in 1992 (Table 1). At least 826 schools and day care centers statewide are within 2 miles of over 10,000 pounds of methyl bromide use, and at least 10 schools were less than 2 miles from over 100,000 pounds of methyl bromide application. Twenty schools were within 2 miles of 75,000 pounds or more of methyl bromide use in 1992, and eighteen of these were in Ventura, Monterey, and Santa Barbara counties (Table 2). The top five (and 10 of the top 15) vulnerable schools in the state were all located in Oxnard, in Ventura County (Figure 1).

At least 841 elementary schools and day care centers were within 1.5 miles of one ton or more of agricultural methyl bromide applications in 1992. Three hundred and twenty one elementary schools and day care center were within 1.5 miles of over 10,000 pounds of methyl bromide use that same year (Table 3).

Two schools in Union City, Alameda County were within 1 mile of more than 42,000 pounds of methyl bromide use, followed by three schools in Ventura county within 1 mile of between 18,000 and 41,000 pounds of use. Ventura and Monterey counties had 131 and 112 elementary schools and day care centers respectively within 2 miles of 10,000 pounds or more methyl bromide use. Stanislaus county had 96 and Alameda county had 83. Using one ton of methyl bromide as the yardstick, Orange County had the most elementary schools and day care facilities at risk, with 83 elementary schools (enrolling 45,000 children), plus 212 day care centers, within 2 miles of 2,000 pounds or more methyl bromide use (Table 1).

Table 1: Number of Elementary Schools and Day Care Centers within 2 miles of Methyl Bromide Use (1992)

 

Pounds of Methyl Bromide Use

County Over 500 pounds Over 1,000 pounds Over 2,000 pounds Over 10,000 pounds Over 25,000 pounds
Orange 390 349 295 50 1
Stanislaus 243 222 209 96 24
Ventura 216 197 180 131 73
Los Angeles 202 183 116 13 7
San Diego 180 151 133 53 12
Monterey 144 133 133 112 81
Santa Barbara 130 109 99 64 50
San Joaquin 116 101 100 35 2
Fresno 129 95 72 14 1
Alameda 94 94 94 83 34
San Bernardino 114 69 43 13 0
Merced 62 62 62 48 31
San Luis Obispo 55 55 55 31 20
Sonoma 53 40 40 8 0
Tulare 40 40 38 17 0
Sutter 40 36 34 9 0
Kern 35 33 32 18 7
Riverside 32 32 3 0 0
Yuba 27 23 16 2 0
Santa Cruz 22 20 20 16 11
San Mateo 19 19 19 0 0
Yolo 19 19 18 0 0
Humboldt 18 18 18 0 0
Butte 10 10 10 2 1
San Benito 9 9 9 9 0
Tehama 9 6 4 0 0
Shasta 9 6 5 0 0
Madera 3 3 3 2 2
Kings 2 2 2 0 0
Lake 1 1 1 0 0
Lassen 1 1 1 0 0
Solano 1 1 1 0 0
Contra Costa 10 0 0 0 0
Total 2,435 2,139 1,865 826 57

Source: Environmental Working Group. Compiled from California Department of Pesticide Regulation, Pesticide Use Report 1992. California Department of Education, Public/Private School Information. California Department of Social Services, Licensing Information System.

 

Table 2: Twenty schools were within 2 miles of 75,000 pounds or more of methyl bromide use in 1992

Rank School City County Enrollment Pounds of Methyl Bromide
1 Rio Del Valle Elementary Oxnard Ventura 547 255,137
2 El Rio Elementary Oxnard Ventura 601 224,983
3 Rio Plaza Elementary Oxnard Ventura 483 188,148
4 Rio Real Elementary Oxnard Ventura 667 153,410
5 Rio Lindo Elementary Oxnard Ventura 482 142,028
6 La Joya Elementary Salinas Monterey 680 136,345
7 Rose Avenue Elementary Oxnard Ventura 1135 133,298
8 Bonita Elementary Santa Maria Santa Barbara 70 123,964
9 Mar Vista Elementary Oxnard Ventura 563 108,863
10 Battles Elementary Santa Maria Santa Barbara 917 102,020
11 Lemonwood Elementary Oxnard Ventura 801 96,566
12 Tierra Vista Elementary Oxnard Ventura 533 89,328
13 Adam (William Laird) Elementary Santa Maria Santa Barbara 788 88,628
14 Our Lady Of Guadalupe Elem. Oxnard Ventura 302 86,813
15 Elkhorn Elementary Castroville Monterey 528 84,564
16 Alisal Community Elementary Salinas Monterey 965 83,434
17 Ohlone Elementary Watsonville Monterey 535 81,273
18 Arellanes Elementary Santa Maria Santa Barbara 246 81,136
19 Kern Seventh-Day Adventist Elem. Shafter Kern 14 78,150
20 Campus Park Elementary Livingston Merced 598 78,068

Source: Environmental Working Group. Compiled from California Department of Pesticide Regulation, Pesticide Use Report 1992. California Department of Education, Public/Private School Information. California Department of Social Services, Licensing Information System.

Table 3: Number of Elementary Schools and Day Care Centers within 1.5 miles of Methyl Bromide Use (1992)

 

 

Pounds of Methyl Bromide Use

County Over 100 pounds Over 500 pounds Over 1,000 pounds Over 2,000 pounds Over 10,000 pounds Over 25,000 pounds
Orange 230 166 155 121 21 -  
Ventura 130 123 109 95 52 29  
San Diego 191 124 91 80 16 -  
Stanislaus 133 88 78 75 30 6  
Monterey 84 84 73 73 59 24  
Los Angeles 135 68 59 39 1 1  
Santa Barbara 75 66 57 50 38 23  
Fresno 62 61 53 27 5 -  
Merced 56 49 49 48 27 6  
Alameda 68 46 46 46 28 12  
San Luis Obispo 41 41 41 41 20 2  
San Bernardino 60 37 28 15 1 -  
Tulare 31 25 24 16 3 -  
San Joaquin 81 41 23 22 5 1  
Sutter 18 18 18 17 1 -  
Riverside 45 17 17 1 - -  
Sonoma 24 24 16 14 1 -  
Yolo 12 12 12 11 - -  
Humboldt 11 11 11 11 - -  
Kern 12 12 10 10 3 1  
Santa Cruz 9 9 9 9 6 3  
Yuba 18 9 9 8 - -  
San Mateo 5 5 5 5 - -  
Butte 5 4 4 2 1 -  
San Benito 2 2 2 2 2 -  
Tehama 2 2 2 - - -  
Lake 1 1 1 1 - -  
Madera 3 1 1 1 1 -  
Shasta 2 2 1 1 - -  
Contra Costa 1 1 - - - -  
 
Total 1,547 1,149 1,004 841 321 108  
 
 

Source: Environmental Working Group. Compiled from California Department of Pesticide Regulation, Pesticide Use Report 1992. California Department of Education, Public/Private School Information. California Department of Social Services, Licensing Information System.

Figure 1: Methyl bromide use near elementary schools and daycare centers in Oxnard, California in 1992.

 

California Ban on Methyl Bromide Use

The California Birth Defects Prevention Act of 1984 (SB 950) required that all pesticides registered for use in California be supported by a complete battery of health effects testing data by 1991. Specifically, the law stipulates that pesticides registered for use in California must meet the animal study requirements promulgated by the U.S. EPA for cancer, reproductive harm, chromosomal damage and birth defects. The California law differs from the federal requirements, however, because it places strict deadlines on submission of test results.

In 1987, manufacturers of about one hundred common pesticidal chemicals, including methyl bromide, announced that they would not meet the 1991 deadlines. In 1991, the California legislature amended the law to give pesticide companies more time to complete the studies. The deadline was extended five more years, but state lawmakers also set 1996 as the "drop dead" date, after which time, those pesticides with missing health data would be suspended for use in the state.

As the March 1996 deadline approached, methyl bromide producers and users appealed to the state for a special interest exemption to the law. On December 29th, Governor Wilson called a unprecedented Special Session of the state legislature for the expressed purpose of extending use of methyl bromide in California in absence of complete animal testing data.

Regulatory Double Standard in California

In California, people living near methyl bromide fumigation facilities receive far more protection from methyl bromide emissions than people living near farm fields that are also treated with methyl bromide. Fumigation facilities are regulated as point sources of methyl bromide emissions under the California Air Toxic Hot Spot Information and Assessment Act of 1987. Use of the same chemical in the same amounts on agricultural fields, in contrast, is barely regulated at all.

Standard setting under the Toxic Hot Spot Act has revealed some important insights to the risks faced by communities in close proximity to heavy methyl bromide applications. The case involving the San Diego Unified Port Districts Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal Methyl Bromide Fumigation Facility illustrates the point.

Historically, the Port facility was permitted to apply a maximum of 40,000 pounds of methyl bromide per year. In 1993, the risk from methyl bromide emissions at the port were assessed by the state of California. Assessments were made using EPA and state approved air dispersion models, focussing on two schools -- one about one mile away, the other about two miles away (SDRA 1993).

The risks for both schools exceeded acceptable levels set by the EPA and the state of California. More notably, the school farther away was at greater riskfrom methyl bromide emissions than the school that was closer to the facility. As a result of this risk assessment, the fumigation facility is installing methyl bromide recapture equipment and is taking other measures to mitigate methyl bromide emissions. There are no similar calculations or remedies made for agricultural applications even though hundreds of elementary schools across the state are within two miles of as much or more methyl bromide use as that permitted at the San Diego port fumigation facility.

Health Effects of Methyl Bromide

Methyl bromide is classified by the EPA as a Category I acute toxin, the most potent class of toxic chemicals. It is a colorless, odorless, and deadly gas, and because it is applied as a gas, it naturally drifts off site into the surrounding community. The acute effects of methyl bromide exposure include headaches, drowsiness, lethargy, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, blurred vision, twitching and convulsions, seizures, psychosis and death. More disturbing, these effects may persist long after a single poisoning incident (CEPA 1994, HESIS 1990, Brodberg et al. 1992). The known effects of repeated sub-lethal exposure include damage to the brain, the peripheral nervous system, the respiratory system, kidneys, liver, eyes, nose, throat, lungs and skin. Methyl bromide is also a "direct acting mutagen" that is toxic to DNA (CEPA 1994). And methyl bromide causes "treatment related", "biologically significant", developmental (birth) defects including absence of gall bladders, fused sternebrae (spine), and decreased fetal weight (CEPA 1994). Eighteen people have died from methyl bromide exposure in California since 1985. Hundreds more have been sickened or poisoned and evacuated from schools and homes due to methyl bromide exposure during that same time period (Pease 1995).

On top of all this, methyl bromide is a powerful destroyer of the earth's protective stratospheric ozone layer. An international assessment of methyl bromide by 200 of the worlds leading atmospheric scientists rated methyl bromide 50 times more damaging to the stratospheric ozone layer than CFCs (UNEP 1995, EPA 1995). Scientists believe the gas is responsible for at least 10% of present and predictable future ozone depletion as the ozone layer continues its steady decline (WMO 1994). Damage to the ozone layer causes hundreds of thousands of cases of cataract induced blindness and non-melanoma skin cancer each year, as well as immune suppression and disruption of global ecosystems (UNEP 1992, Kripke 1995).

The United States is the largest consumer of methyl bromide by far, using 40% of global production annually, or at least 60 million pounds per year. California and Florida are the largest user states (USDA 1993, EPA 1994, UNEP 1995).

 

References: 

Brodberg, Robert K., Harvard Fong, Tareq Formoli, David Haskell, Dana Meinders, Tian Thongsinthusak. 1992. Draft Report: Estimation of Exposure of Persons in California to Pesticide Products Containing Methyl Bromide. California Environmental Protection Agency. Department of Pesticide Regulation. Worker Health and Safety Branch. June 1992.

California Department of Education. 1995. Database of public and private school locations and enrollment, updated as of November 1994.

California Department of Social Services, Community Care Licensing Division, Licensing Information System, locations of public and private day care facilities, prepared August 1995.

California Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Pesticide Regulation. 1993. Information Sheet Discussing Size of Warning Zone. Proposition 65 - Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act. Safe Use Determination for Methyl Bromide. November 30, 1993. California Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Pesticide Regulation. 1994. Methyl Bromide. Prepared for the Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant Identification Committee for consideration of methyl bromide as a developmental toxicant under Proposition 65. March 1994.

California Environmental Protection Agency. Department of Pesticide Regulation. 1992. Pesticide Use Reporting Database 1992.

Hazard Evaluation System and Information Service (HESIS). 1990. California Department of Health Services. Methyl Bromide Fact Sheet. May 1990.

Kripke, Margaret L. 1995. Human Health Effects of Ultraviolet-B Radiation. Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. Hearing on Accelerated Phase out of Stratospheric Ozone Depleting Substances. September 20, 1995.

Pease, William. 1995. Testimony before the California Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Senate Bills addressing methyl bromide. January 24, 1995.

San Diego Port Risk Assessment 1993. Draft and final risk assessments done for San Diego Unified Port District's Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal Methyl Bromide Fumigation Facility located in the Cold Storage Facility pursuant to lawsuits filed by the Environmental Health Coalition v S.D. County Air Pollution Control Authority and San Diego Unified School District v Harbor Fumigation Facility, 1993..

United Nations Environment Programme. 1992. Methyl Bromide: Its Atmospheric Science, Technology and Economics. Synthesis Report of the Methyl Bromide Interim Scientific Assessment and Methyl Bromide Interim Technology and Economic Assessment. June 1992.

United Nations Environment Programme. 1994. 1994 Report of the Methyl Bromide Technical Options Committee: 1995 Assessment. Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

United Nations Environment Programme. 1994a. Environmental Effects of Ozone Depletion: 1994 Assessment. EPA 430/K-94/030. November 1994.

United States Department of Agriculture. 1993. National Agricultural Statistics Service. Agricultural Statistics 1993. U.S. Government Printing Office.

United States Department of Agriculture. National Agricultural Pesticide Impact Assessment Program (NAPIAP). 1993 Biologic and Economic Assessment of Methyl Bromide. Washington, D.C. April 1993.

United States Environmental Protection Agency 1994. Methyl Bromide Consumption Estimates. Prepared for the Stratospheric Protection Division, Office of Air and Radiation. May 3, 1994.

United States Environmental Protection Agency 1995. Methyl Bromide Home Page

World Meteorological Organization. 1994. Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 1994. Executive Summary. Report by National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, United Nations Environment Programme, World Meteorological Organization.

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