Methyl Bromide Toxicity: What’s on Your Strawberries?

Learn about the health and environmental effects of methyl bromide, an acutely toxic pesticide used to grow strawberries.

| August/September 2001

The quenching flavor and charming fragrance of strawberries have captivated taste buds for centuries. Unfortunately, America’s fourth favorite fruit comes with a price: pesticides used on conventional crops are a hazard both to our bodies and to our environment. Methyl bromide, used to disinfect soil before strawberries are planted, is 60 times more damaging to the ozone layer then chlorofluorocarbons, which are banned.

“Part of it degrades in the soil by bacteria, but a lot escapes into the atmosphere,” explains Husein Ajwa, soil scientist for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Fresno, Calif. “Methyl bromide is so light, it moves up quickly to the stratosphere, to the ozone layer. This starts a reaction that converts ozone into oxygen molecules and releases radiation, as with other ozone-depleting compounds.” One bromine ion can destroy hundreds of thousands of ozone molecules before jettisoning into the troposphere.

“[Farmers] cover fields with plastic tarps and [the methyl bromide] permeates the soil in a day or two. Some studies show that half the gas escapes immediately,” says Larry Bohlen, Health and Environment Programs Director at Friends of the Earth in Washington, D.C. The amount that leaches out of the soil can reach as high as 95 percent.

Methyl bromide is also acutely toxic, Ajwa explains. Exposure to high concentrations can cause damage to the respiratory and central nervous systems, even death. The United States is responsible for about 40 percent of the 72,000 tons of methyl bromide used worldwide every year, with California alone producing 80 percent of the nation’s berries and 20 percent of the global market — 1.5 billion pounds yearly. Farmers credit methyl bromide along with the mild, coastal climate (their fields are four times more productive than any other state) for their $750 million crop.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, however, methyl bromide use in industrialized nations will end in 2005, and developing nations have until 2015 to comply. “It harmonized phaseout with the international agreement in order to keep American farmers competitive,” Bohlen says. Bill Thomas, director of the EPA’s Methyl Bromide Program in Washington, D.C., says that the agency is committed to enforcing the Clean Air Act and finding viable alternatives to methyl bromide, which has been ubiquitous in strawberry fields and nurseries since it came to market in the 1940s.

The stakes are high, however, and public servants hear growers’ concerns. In 1999, Vick Fazio, then a Democratic Representative for the Fresno area, wrote an amendment that extended the Clean Air Act deadline from 2001 to 2005. The current political climate has inspired attempts to doctor existing legislation by any means necessary. “There have been several challenges,” Bohlen affirms, citing a proposal by Sen. Richard Ponbom (R-California) to redefine the Unites States as a developing nation in order to get the 2015 deadline.

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