California Protects Farmworkers by Restricting Pesticide Methyl Bromide

To better protect farmworkers, the state has imposed new rules restricting the use of the pesticide methyl bromide.

Nov. 9—To better protect farmworkers, the state has imposed new rules restricting the use of the pesticide methyl bromide.

Locally, methyl bromide use is limited to strawberries and greenhouse crops. Strawberry growers typically apply the pesticide in the fall; nursery growers use it all year.

The effect of the rules will be limited in San Luis Obispo County because fewer than a dozen growers use the controversial pesticide, said Janice Campbell, deputy county agricultural commissioner.

But the new regulations represent a significant step in managing the use of methyl bromide with worker safety as a goal.

Effective immediately, growers must limit long-term exposure for those who apply the pesticide and their field supervisors. The rules also strengthen public safety protections imposed in 2000.

The most significant of these protections is the requirement that applicators wear respirators and change their filters daily, said Dan Legard with the state Strawberry Commission, an industry-funded panel.

"The costs will go up for fumigation because of the requirement to use respirators," Legard said. "The applicators will pass those costs on to the growers." Methyl bromide is a powerful fumigant that is used before crops are planted to rid the soil of any pests. International rules call for its use to be phased out in 2005, but extensions for its use on certain crops, such as strawberries, have pushed back deadlines.

The pesticide is known to damage the Earth's protective ozone layer. State officials are also studying direct health effects of the pesticide.

The new rules impose a limit on how much methyl bromide workers can be exposed to during a 30-day period. Previous rules only regulated exposure during 24-hour periods.

Officials with the state Department of Pesticide Regulation say these new "seasonal" rules provide a 100-fold margin of safety and are the first in the nation. Nowhere in California is the level of methyl bromide use high enough to reach the new seasonal limits.

The new rules also make permanent additional public safety requirements. These include:

—Advanced notification of anyone who lives within 300 feet of a fumigation site.

—Termination of application 36 hours before any school within 300 feet of fumigation goes into session.

—Addition of supervisors to those required to wear respirators, devices that reduce workers' exposure.

"By 2005, we will have the growers updated," Campbell said.

The use of methyl bromide has decreased dramatically in recent years as growers turn to alternatives to avoid the restrictions. Its use has spawned numerous lawsuits by environmentalists and agricultural interests.

"We want them to stop using it period," said Pam Heatherington with the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo. "I don't think we've wavered from that point."

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