August 21, 1997

Methyl Bromide Poisoning: The politics of poison

In January 1996, Gov. Wilson called a special session of the Legislature to revoke a ban on methyl bromide scheduled for the end of March 1996. After an intense battle marked by heavy lobbying from chemical interests, the Legislature extended the deadline until the end of 1997, when the pesticide's manufacturer is supposed to complete long-delayed studies on methyl bromide's health effects.

It was the third time, since enactment of the California Birth Defects Prevention Act of 1984 (SB 950) that the deadline for methyl bromide had been extended in the absence of the requisite health studies. If the studies are submitted by the latest deadline, DPR must decide whether the findings require a ban on methyl bromide -- an action DPR has taken against only one pesticide covered by SB 950 in the agency's history.

Under the 1986 state law called Proposition 65, chemicals known to cause birth defects or cancer fall under a special set of restrictions that include giving written warnings to anyone who may come into contact with them, and allowable levels of exposure are much lower. Methyl bromide was placed on the Prop. 65 list in 1993. After an appeal from agribusiness interests, who saw that the tighter restrictions would severely limit agricultural use, the Wilson Administration did an about-face: Methyl bromide was listed under Prop. 65 for structural fumigation, but not for crops.