Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 10, 2015. Three members of a Delaware family, a father and his two teenage sons, remain hospitalized after being exposed last month to methyl bromide, a highly neurotoxic pesticide, while on vacation at their luxury condo in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Methyl bromide is a restricted use pesticide and is not registered for residential use, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2013 Methyl Bromide Preliminary Workplan (pg. 6). Although mostly banned in the U.S., it can still be used in certain agricultural and food storage sites under a controversial “critical use exemption” loophole in federal (and international) law.
According to James Maron, a family spokesman, Steve Esmond, his wife, Theresa Devine, and their two teenage sons are being treated at hospitals in the mainland United States. Mr. Esmond has regained consciousness, but his sons are in critical condition and remain in a coma weeks after the exposure.
Use of methyl bromide was confirmed the day after the family became ill, which has helped inform doctors and medical experts on how to treat the family, said Judith Enck, EPA’s regional administrator in New York City, which has jurisdiction over the U.S Virgin Islands. “We have confirmed that the problem is indeed methyl bromide,” she said. “Methyl bromide is a potent neurotoxin. It’s a gas. It can cause convulsions, coma, cognitive deficits, inflammation of the lungs. A lot depends on how much a person is exposed to and for what period of time.” So far the investigation has revealed a certified applicator working for Memphis, Tennessee-based Terminix applied the methyl bromide in the complex while targeting an indoor beetle that consumes wood, Ms. Enck said.
Investigators also learned methyl bromide has been used in the complex before, but it’s not clear why the ban was ignored. “Certified pesticide applicators know this is not approved for indoor residential use,” Ms. Enck said. “The health effects are quite serious.” EPA officials said the agency is looking into the use of the pesticide with the U.S. Virgin Islands government at the Sirenusa Condominium Resort in Cruz Bay, St. John. The Justice Department is also investigating the company that may be responsible.
Because methyl bromide is an ozone-depleting substance, its production is controlled under both the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances, which is legally binding on all signatories to the treaty, of which the United States is one, and the Clean Air Act. These laws mandate that the substance was to be completely phased out, according to a precise schedule, by January 1, 2005. However, due to the “critical use exemption” (CUE) loophole in the which allows the chemical to continue to be used if users petition that there are “no feasible alternatives.” As a result of uses under CUEs, application rates of methyl bromide in the U.S. have remained persistently high.
While it should be noted that there are no CUEs for residential uses, methyl bromide has CUEs for its use as a pre-plant soil fumigant and in the post-harvest treatment of commodities and structural (food storage sites) fumigation. For example, CUEs for 2014 and 2015 include pre-plant use on strawberries and post-harvest use for California storage facilities for walnuts, dried plums, figs, raisins, and dates. Other current CUEs exist for dry cured pork products, rice millers, and pet food manufacturing facilities. As a result of methyl bromide’s continued use on crops, there currently exist food tolerances for inorganic bromide residues resulting from fumigation with methyl bromide on nearly 90 commodities, as well as a tolerance for methyl bromide on cotton. The continued existence of CUEs for methyl bromide in agriculture is alarming, especially due to the fact that viable alternatives do already exist. For instance, when it comes to strawberries, alternatives to methyl bromide include selecting more resilient varieties and improved cultivars of strawberries, as well as incorporating traditional cultural practices such as crop rotation, cover crops, and physical methods such as soil solarization and anaerobic disinfestation. Despite these alternatives, strawberries continue to make up a large proportion of methyl bromide use in the U.S.
Due to its use in agriculture, reports over the years have highlighted additional risks of exposure, particularly for children who attend school where pesticides like methyl bromide are used. According to a California State report, issued by the California Environmental Health Tracking Program (CEHTP) and titled “Agricultural Pesticide Use near Public Schools in California,” methyl bromide was one of the toxic pesticides found to be applied near schools. Additionally, Latino children are also more likely to attend schools near areas with the highest use of pesticides of concern. The civil rights complaint Angelita C. v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation alleged that California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) discriminated against Latino school children by allowing unhealthy levels of methyl bromide to be applied near schools populated by mostly Latino children. The complaint alleged that this pattern and practice of allowing methyl bromide to be applied near schools caused an unhealthy and racially discriminatory condition for Latino school children and their parents.
Fumigants like methyl bromide are some of the most dangerous pesticides on the market. Other fumigants include methyl iodide, which was previously proposed as an alternative to methyl bromide but was soon slated for phase out after EPA and the registrant, Arysta LifeScience North America, LLC, entered into a Memorandum of Agreement to formally terminate all agricultural use of the chemical in the U.S. by the end of 2012 and ultimately remove all methyl iodide products from the U.S.; methyl iodide has been linked to thyroid toxicity, permanent neurological damage, and fetal losses in experimental animals. Another methyl bromide alternative is sulfuryl fluoride, which EPA will also be phasing out over a period of three years due to concerns over fluoride residues; EPA concluded that the tolerance no longer meets the safety standard under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) when combined with other fluoride exposure pathways. Fumigants like these are applied in large quantities, vaporize easily, drift and expose nearby farmworkers and other community members to harm, with health effects linked to headaches, vomiting, severe lung irritation, and neurological effects. Some fumigants are linked to cancer, reduced fertility, birth defects and higher rates of miscarriage. Despite these concerns, EPA has continued to allow these chemicals to remain on the market. In the case of sulfuryl flouride, Congress intervened to undermine its plan to phase-out agricultural uses. As such, the poisoning of the Esmond family raises serious issues about the continued availability and use of highly hazardous chemicals like methyl bromide, sanctioned by EPA, and compliance and enforcement of the use of restricted pesticides, in light of federal and international bans and phase out.
For the management of structures and buildings, Beyond Pesticides advocates the use of integrated pest management (IPM) as a vital tool that aids in the adoption of non-toxic methods to control pests and facilitates the transition toward a pesticide-free (and healthier) world. It offers the opportunity to eliminate or drastically reduce pesticide use and to minimize the toxicity of and exposure to any products that are used. Sanitation, structural repairs, mechanical and biological control, population monitoring are some IPM methods that can be undertaken to control pests.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Sources: CBS News, www.beyondpesticides.org