Thursday, May 18, 2006
Methyl Bromide: Safe As Salt
Your May 11 story, “Indecent Exposure—California appeals ruling to protect workers from poisonous pesticide,” is one of the most inaccurate pieces ever written about methyl bromide and the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR).
Let’s begin at the end and work through this tangle of misinformation:
Last month, after intense public pressure, DPR pulled back on authorizing a replacement pesticide for methyl bromide, methyl iodide, which is even more toxic than methyl bromide.
WRONG. The US Environmental Protection Agency was considering registration. DPR had voiced serious health concerns about the pending decision. In fact, Pesticide Action Network sent DPR a thank you, saying our opposition was crucial in delaying the registration of methyl iodide.
While methyl bromide was supposed to have been phased out in 2005, state agencies like DPR have successfully applied for yearly exemptions that allow farmers to continue using methyl bromide in California.
WRONG. DPR does not apply for exemptions, and takes no role in granting them. Exemptions are sought by commodity groups and reviewed by US EPA. DPR, in contrast, has been actively supporting the search for methyl bromide alternatives for years, and imposing the most stringent use restrictions in the nation.
By appealing, DPR has essentially handed strawberry farmers who use methyl bromide at least one more year—and perhaps two—to expose farmworkers and residents to higher quantities of methyl bromide than originally allowed under the 2002 exposure regulations.
WRONG. Our regulations were never changed to allow higher exposures. The 2002 regulations covered short-term exposure limits only. The later regulations, which came under legal challenge, incorporated the previous short-term limits and for the first time set legal limits on subchronic (seasonal) exposures.
The revised rules raised methyl bromide exposure levels for humans by 900 percent.
MISLEADING. The difference was 8 parts per billion. If you use nine grains of salt instead of one grain of salt, would a “900 percent increase” in sodium consumption put health implications into reasonable context? Or it would it simply raise the fear quotient?
To date, however, no study has comprehensively measured the long-term neurological effects of methyl bromide on humans. Little is known about methyl bromide’s effects on people who’ve been exposed to small quantities over a period of about three months (called subchronic exposure).
MISLEADING, AND WRONG. In fact, there are virtually no “long-term” studies for any chemicals—much less pesticides—involving human exposure. This is why animal studies are favored.
One more point:
In Monterey County in 2004, farmers pumped almost 1.3 million pounds of methyl bromide into the soil, mostly on strawberry fields, making it the second-most-used pesticide in the county.
The article omits the fact that as a whole, California strawberry growers are reducing their use of methyl bromide; by about 40 percent from 1999 to 2004.
DPR strongly supports the efforts of all commodity groups to reduce reliance on chemicals in favor of pest management methods that pose less risk to people and our environment. —Glenn Brank | Communications Director, California Department of Pesticide Regulation
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Editor’s Note: Mr. Brank is correct about two errors in last week’s piece on methyl bromide. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was ultimately responsible for pulling back from approving methyl iodide as a replacement for methyl bromide. And DPR is not the agency that each year applies for exemptions to allow for continued methyl bromide use in California.
In both cases, the Weekly misreported important administrative details. We regret both of these errors.
The Weekly stands by the rest of the statements that Brank challenges. The majority of his letter consists of disingenuous hair-splitting, A judge has decided that DPR “willfully and illegally” ignored science demanding lower exposure levels of methyl bromide—largely for the reasons cited in our article.
The combative tone of this letter, from a spokesman for a state agency, is troubling. More troubling is his obvious bias—seen most clearly in his stunningly unfortunate comparison of methyl bromide and salt. Clearly, Brank cannot accept the fact that methyl bromide, even in minute quantities, is dangerous. This, from the spokesman of the agency charged with regulating pesticides?