The Multinational Monitor



The Barons of Bromide
Poisonous Pesticides and Poisoned Politics

by Joshua Karliner and Alba Morales

NO ONE TELLS MARIA when methyl bromide is being used near her home. Yet this immigrant farm worker and many of her co-workers are very familiar with this acutely toxic pesticide's health effects. Maria lives in the San Andreas work camp in Watsonville, California. She resides there with 250 to 300 other men, women and children -- all Latino, many recent immigrants -- who are employed by a variety of growers. Strawberry fields surround the camp on three sides, and a major road borders the fourth. Since 1987, San Andreas has been evacuated twice, both times when methyl bromide escaped from underneath the plastic which is used to cover the fields into which this deadly chemical is injected.


Denice Torres has been living in Union City for almost eight years. A fence and narrow trench are all that separate her backyard from over 55 acres of flower fields. For many years, she never worried. "I took it for granted that they wouldn't be doing anything back there that would harm their neighbors' health." In 1993, her daughter had a seizure at preschool. "A few weeks later she had a seizure right here in the living room. Meanwhile she was getting strange bumps on her skin." These symptoms occurred after the fields behind the Torres home were fumigated with methyl bromide. Torres' two sons both have respiratory problems.

Anita Reynolds moved next door to Torres in October of 1992. She immediately suffered from sinus infections and respiratory problems, which she had never had before. Her daughter, born one month after their move to Union City, has asthma. Their dog developed leukemia and died shortly after the family moved into their new home.

These families' experiences are not uncommon in Union City. People didn't realize how common their experiences were until January 1996, when neighbors started asking each other questions, and striking similarities emerged.

Union City residents called a community meeting. People started seeing how many health problems they shared. "We didn't even realize how widespread it was," says Reynolds, "until the meeting when people were getting together and saying `that was when we were sick and, oh, you were sick too?'"

The owner of Glad-A-Way, the main grower in Union City, attended a community meeting. He praised the wonders of methyl bromide, and Bob Wing, one of the first to sound the alarm in Union City, remembers that "he said they'd never had any problems, yet some of the workers I talked to had horrendous stories about health problems they'd had. But none of the workers could say anything due to their job status and immigration status."

Cornelius Hall, a retired fire chief, recalls that a Glad-A-Way representative said that the fumigant didn't drift, and that plastic used to cover treated fields didn't tear, "then we found out that another area had been evacuated due to plastic tearing."

That area was Fremont, California, a city a little over three miles south of Union City. Fourteen hundred Fremont residents were evacuated from their homes on October 5, 1987, after methyl bromide escaped from a nearby Glad-A-Way field.

Responding to community pressure, city council members unanimously resolved to encourage "State and County regulatory agencies to take all necessary precautions to eliminate the risk of methyl bromide exposures that our families and children now face." The school board passed a similar resolution; Union City's Decoto Elementary is within a mile and a half of farms where more than 57,000 pounds of methyl bromide are used annually. But methyl bromide is still used in Union City, and residents still fear exposure.

"Can't they use something that's neighbor-friendly, that's not going to hurt the ozone and that's not going to hurt our health?" asks Wing, echoing the sentiments of many Union City residents.

Wing says he would like to see "total stoppage of its use immediately. It is so ridiculously unsafe. The tradeoff we're presented with, the official line by the people who are promoting its continued use, is the economic cost of not using it. Compared with the health costs for so many people, this rationale is totally immoral, misplaced and completely unthinking and unfeeling."

-- J.K. & A.M.

"Since many of the houses are really close, right behind the fields" says Maria, "sometimes dogs, or even kids, rip the plastic without even noticing." The last methyl bromide-caused evacuation Maria remembers occurred when a child playing hide-and-seek wandered onto a plastic-covered field, stumbled and ripped the edge of the plastic. Methyl bromide fumes escaped and enveloped the neighboring farm worker camp, sending at least three residents to the hospital.

Maria is paying the price for methyl bromide use, as are the thousands of other farm workers and community residents who live near fields and agricultural storage facilities where methyl bromide is applied. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified methyl bromide as a Category I acute toxin, the most deadly category of substances, and the state of California has been on the verge of banning it for the past decade. It can cause neurological damage, birth defects and other types of poisonings.

Methyl bromide is not only a menace to the people who live and work near where it is used. Its role in depleting the stratospheric ozone layer threatens to make the entire planet a victim of its ill-effects. The EPA has listed methyl bromide as a Class I ozone depleter under the Clean Air Act, requiring it to be phased out by the year 2001, and the UN Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is moving to phase it out on a global scale. The UN Environment Program reports that, with the phaseout of CFCs underway, eliminating worldwide methyl bromide use is the single most important step needed to protect the ozone layer.

Three corporations account for most of the world's methyl bromide production. The Great Lakes Chemical Corporation and Albemarle (a spin-off from the Ethyl Corporation), both based in the United States, along with a Tel Aviv-based subsidiary of Israel Chemicals called the Dead Sea Bromine Group, control roughly 75 percent of global production of the pesticide. Other producers include France's Elf Atochem and five Japanese multinationals that produce 10 percent of global output.

These companies are joined by the privately held TriCal Corporation, which together with its affiliated companies, including Hendrix and Dail, Soil Chemicals Corporation and Shadow Mountain Products, virtually dominate methyl bromide fumigation in the United States. A number of large agribusiness corporations such as the Sun-Diamond Growers Cooperative, as well as some of the large California strawberry corporations such as Driscoll, also play a central role in the methyl bromide debate.

These players, along with an assorted and sundry list of other participants, have worked together on local, national and global initiatives to fight the phaseout of this acutely toxic, ozone depleting chemical. They have sought to undermine the California Birth Defects Prevention Act, the U.S. Clean Air Act, and on a global level, the Montreal Protocol. The Barons of Bromide have doggedly worked to cast doubt on the broad scientific consensus that methyl bromide causes birth defects and depletes the ozone layer. They have obstructed efforts to monitor methyl bromide emissions in the field. They have denied and downplayed the existence of proven alternatives for the vast majority of methyl bromide uses. They have created and funded powerful industry associations such as the Methyl Bromide Working Group and the Methyl Bromide Global Coalition, which lobby on their behalf in Sacramento, in the halls of the U.S. Congress and, for the purposes of the Montreal Protocol, in capital cities around the world. They have flooded the political system with millions of dollars in donations to government officials and candidates for office.

All of these initiatives benefit the Barons' bottom line. But, as the poison spreads and the ozone hole grows, it leaves much of the rest of the world paying the price for such unbridled corporate power. Particularly hard hit by methyl bromide's mal-effects are people of color, especially immigrant farm workers and children.


The categorization of methyl bromide in the United States as a Class I ozone depleter has triggered a freeze on methyl bromide production at 1991 levels and a legal mandate for its total phase-out by 2001.

Four corporations are currently permitted under the Clean Air Act to continue producing or distributing methyl bromide at 1991 levels. They are: Great Lakes Chemical, Albemarle, Ameribrom (the U.S. subsidiary of Dead Sea Bromine), and TriCal Inc. These multinationals, which in the words of TriCal's president Dean Storkan, "don't agree with all the restrictions that the U.S. EPA has placed on methyl bromide," are working to undermine the Clean Air Act through the Methyl Bromide Working Group (MBWG).

The MBWG, its members and other Bromide Barons have fashioned impressive ties to leading policymakers and exert a formidable presence in U.S. national politics:

Working with their allies in Congress, the Barons of Bromide continue in their attempts to repeal or delay the methyl bromide ban mandated by the Clean Air Act. They narrowly missed in an effort to get this repeal included in last-minute legislation at the end of the 104th Congress in September 1996. Now, with the 105th Congress in session, they are once again moving in that direction, mobilizing congressional allies and contacts in the Clinton administration. If they fail to roll back the Clean Air Act, they will shoot for an "essential use exemption." Such an exemption would come in the form of an executive order allowing the continued use of methyl bromide where it is deemed "essential." Essential uses may well include tomatoes and strawberries, the two heaviest users of methyl bromide in the country. The coalition of environmental, farmworker, labor unions and other organizations supporting the phase-out of methyl bromide is organizing against this essential use exemption.


The Barons of Bromide are no less active on the global front, where they are struggling to combat calls for a global phase-out. Their international initiatives are led by an industry association known as the Methyl Bromide Global Coalition (MBGC). Despite its lofty sounding name, the MBGC is composed of only six methyl bromide producers, plus TriCal, which coordinates the association. TriCal's President Dean Storkan claims that the MBGC is a purely scientific association "formed to fund scientific research on the uncertainties" of methyl bromide's impacts on the stratospheric ozone layer. In calling for more studies, Storkan asserts that the case of methyl bromide "is not like the CFCs" which were studied for nearly two decades before conclusive scientific proof of their ozone depleting character came to light. Yet in calling for more studies, Storkan and the MBGC are mirroring the behavior of CFC producers such as DuPont, which stalled the CFC phase-out for as long as they could.

Despite its efforts to cultivate a scientific image, the MBGC and the handful of corporations which are its members have exerted significant influence on all aspects of the methyl bromide debate, inserting themselves as central players not only in international scientific panels, but also in diplomatic negotiations and public pronouncements on the issue. Indeed, with the MBGC leading the troops, a virtual army of corporate lobbyists descends on every gathering of the Montreal Protocol.

Delegates and other participants report that the corporate presence is obvious in the discussions, especially the private meetings that form part of the international negotiations. Most conspicuous is the close relationship between the Bromide Barons and the representatives of governments from a handful of nations such as Spain and Kenya. "When you go to the meetings you see how close they are," says Anne Schonfield, an analyst with the Pesticide Action Network. "They're constantly talking, they're constantly meeting, they're constantly saying the same things."

The MBGC members and others are lobbying hard to make sure that phase-out in the Northern industrialized countries happens in the year 2010 or later -- rather than in 2001 as is scheduled in the United States. Their current strategy is to secure a late phase-out date through the Protocol and then pressure the United States to harmonize its methyl bromide ban with the international one in the name of economic competitiveness. They are simultaneously pushing for a much later phase-out date for "less developed" countries, which will allow them to build and maintain markets in the rest of the world.

In tandem with this "diplomatic" initiative, they are globalizing their operations in an attempt to create thriving methyl bromide markets throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. Or as TriCal's Dean Storkan puts it, "If someone will buy it from us, we'll sell it." Countries which should be given the financial support to "leapfrog" over the mistakes of nations like the United States and begin to implement a diversity of alternatives, are instead being flooded with methyl bromide.


Methyl bromide is both a local and a global problem. It poisons farmworkers and communities, while also destroying the ozone layer. Its politics pollute the state, national and international governmental and intergovernmental systems as well. Fortunately, alternatives to methyl bromide and the corporate forces behind it do exist. At this moment, according to the United Nations, there are technically feasible alternatives that are either currently available or at an advanced stage of development for more than 90 percent of all methyl bromide uses.

Ultimately, however, the game is political. And the politics of methyl bromide are as poisonous to democracy as the chemical is to the environment and human health.

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