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Banned Pesticide Use Remains High in CA Strawberry Fields

Methyl bromide is a chemical known to cause reproductive harm and can cause blurred or double vision, slurred speech, dizziness, vomiting and abdominal pain.

SAN FRANCISCO—In some of California’s top strawberry-growing counties, levels of banned methyl bromide remain nearly as high as they were a decade ago, despite a mandated phaseout, according to an analysis by New America Media.

The fumigant was supposed to have been phased out completely by 2005, under a global pact to halt the thinning of the earth’s protective ozone layer. But in 2009, the latest year for which data is available, more than 5 million pounds of the pesticide were still in use, down just 50 percent from 2000.

A limited amount of methyl bromide is allowed for use in instances where no alternative exists, through a “critical use exemption,” determined by treaty members in a three-year process and administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Strawberry growers in California are among the groups that can apply for an exemption.

As a result, in a handful of the state’s highest strawberry production areas, methyl bromide is nearly as ubiquitous as it was in 1999, indicating that not all communities in the state are benefiting similarly from the phaseout.

In Key Areas, Only a 24 Percent Reduction

An analysis of state pesticide-use data revealed that in Monterey County, the state’s main strawberry production area, methyl bromide use has fallen only 24 percent over the decade, from roughly 1.7 million pounds in 1999 to to 1.3 million pounds in 2009.

Adjacent Santa Cruz County, another top strawberry-producing region, saw a similar percentage drop in usage, to about 400,000 pounds from 564,000 pounds in 1999. San Luis Obispo County actually saw an uptick, to roughly 125,000 pounds in 2009 from 110,000 pounds a decade earlier.

“While overall the use of methyl bromide has declined in recent years in California, [its] use in certain crops, including strawberries, has declined very little," said Michael Marsh, a Salinas-based attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., a public interest law firm that advocates on behalf of farmworkers. "And when you look at overall use of fumigants, including methyl bromide, chloropicrin and Telone, you find that the amount of dangerous fumigants used is much higher than it was 20 years ago."

Methyl bromide is on the state's Prop. 65 list as a chemical known to cause reproductive harm. At high exposures, it can cause acute symptoms, including eye and skin irritation; blurred or double vision; slurred speech; dizziness; vomiting, and abdominal pain.

Dangerous conditions for farmworkers prompted CRLA and two other legal advocacy groups to file a Title VI civil rights complaint in 1999, charging that the state’s approval of methyl bromide disproportionately affected Latino children in schools located near fields that were sprayed. This August, after 12 years of litigation, the EPA finally agreed.

In a settlement with California pesticide regulators announced August 26, EPA stated that it had found a preliminary violation of Title VI "as a result of an unintentional adverse disparate impact upon Latino schoolchildren.” State regulators agreed to add one air monitor in a heavy-use area and to step up outreach to the Latino community on pesticide safety.

State Pesticide Regulators Disagree with EPA

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) said it disagrees with the EPA’s “methodology and assumptions in the analysis and disputes there were adverse or disparate effects on Latino children during the time period examined.”

“We agreed to settle without going through the process [a hearing before an EPA law judge] because we have made significant changes to ensure the safety of field workers, the public, and environment in the past 12 years,” said DPR spokesperson Lea Brooks. “It was not worth the investment in resources to take it to hearings. We agree to continue on the course we have been following for years.”

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