AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBlues bury Kings early with four first-period goals Other nations watch as the United States keeps permitting wide use of methyl bromide for tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, Christmas trees and other crops, even though the U.S. signed an international treaty banning all but the most critical uses by 2005. The chemical depletes the earth’s protective ozone layer and can harm the human neurological system, an increasing concern as people settle further into what was once just farm country. Methyl bromide’s survival demonstrates the difficulty of banishing a powerful pesticide that helps deliver what both farmers and consumers want: abundant, pest-free and affordable produce. The Bush administration, at the urging of agriculture and manufacturing interests, is making plans to ensure that methyl bromide remains available at least through 2008 by seeking and winning treaty exemptions. Also, the administration will not commit to an end date. The administration’s “fervent desire and goal” is to end methyl bromide’s use, said Claudia McMurray, deputy assistant secretary of state. WATSONVILLE, Calif. – Shoppers rifle through store shelves brimming with succulent tomatoes and plump strawberries, hoping to enjoy one last round of fresh fruit before the Western growing season ends. There is no hint of a dark side to the blaze of red. Strawberries are a painful subject for Guillermo Ruiz. The farmworker believes his headaches, confusion and vision trouble stem from a decade working in the fields with methyl bromide, a pesticide that protects the berries with stunning efficiency. Cheri Alderman, a teacher whose classroom borders a farm, fears her students could inhale a dangerous whiff of the fumigant as it drifts from the adjacent strawberry field. “A little dribble of poison is still poison,” she says. The concerns stretch globally. The amount of the fumigant that the administration requested under treaty exemptions for the next two years is lower than in 2005. Golf course sod, for instance, won an exemption this year but not next. The reason is that farmers who each year grow Florida tomatoes, California strawberries, Georgia peppers and North Carolina Christmas trees worth billions of dollars are struggling to find a suitable replacement. Alternative organic techniques are too costly and substitute chemicals are not as effective, growers say. Odorless and colorless, methyl bromide is a gas that usually is injected by tractor into soil before planting, then covered with plastic sheeting to slow its release into the air. It wipes out plant parasites, disease and weeds. It results in a spectacular yield, reduced weeding costs and a longer growing season. Workers who inhale enough of the chemical can suffer convulsions, coma and neuromuscular and cognitive problems. In rare cases, they can die. The U.S. signed the Montreal Protocol treaty, committing to phase out methyl bromide by 2005 as part of the effort to protect the earth’s ozone layer. A provision allows for exemptions to prevent “market disruption.” The U.S. has used it to persuade treaty signers to allow U.S. farmers to continue using the chemical. That exemption process leaves the U.S. 37 percent shy of the phaseout required by 2005, with at least 10,450 tons of methyl bromide exempted this year. While that compares with about 28,080 tons used in 1991, this year’s total is higher than it was two years ago. U.S. officials are heading to a Montreal Protocol meeting in Senegal on Dec. 7 to begin negotiations on exemptions for 2007 and are preparing requests for 2008. That is not what the treaty envisioned, said David Doniger, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. In the 1990s, he worked on the protocol as director of climate change for the Environmental Protection Agency. “Nobody expected you would use the exemptions to cancel the final step of the phaseout or even go backward,” Doniger said. With methyl bromide probably sticking around for several years, the EPA is re-examining its health and safety standards. California, which grows more than 85 percent of the nation’s strawberries and other methyl bromide-dependent crops, launched regulations last year to improve its strictest-in-the-nation protections for farmworkers and others. The increased protections are not enough for Alderman, a teacher at Pajaro Middle School in the California agricultural belt south of the Santa Cruz beaches. When air monitoring detected elevated methyl bromide levels four years ago, Alderman joined the outcry. County officials say they pressed the grower; this fall he used a different chemical on the fields nearest the school. Alderman, however, remains concerned because government scientists say methyl bromide seeps into the air. “We have that nice ocean breeze that blows it all this way,” the teacher said. Even California’s required buffer zones and ban on applying methyl bromide within 36 hours of school time is not enough, she said. The school draws youngsters on weekends too, and families live nearby. “It’s ridiculous to think that as long as we don’t do it on school days, then we’re OK,” she said. The American Association of Pesticide Control Centers logged 395 reports of methyl bromide poisonings from 1999 to 2004. A national total remains elusive because farmworkers often do not seek medical care. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!