September 4, 1997
California Agency Failed to Act after Study Showed Dangers of
Methyl Bromide Drift
One year before Sandra Mero of Los Angeles died from being
poisoned by methyl bromide, state officials knew the toxic
pesticide could drift from buildings being fumigated and
endanger people in neighboring houses -- but did nothing with
the information, according to an investigation by a coalition
of groups including Californians for Pesticide Reform,
California Public Interest Research Group, California Rural
Legal Assistance, Environmental Working Group and PAN North
Mero, 36, died in a Burbank hospital March 25, 1997, two
weeks after she fell into a coma when methyl bromide drifted
through empty pipes into her apartment from a nearby
fumigated building. She was the 19th person to die of methyl
bromide poisoning in California since 1984 -- the same year
California's Legislature enacted a ban on the chemical, which
has since been postponed three times after heavy lobbying by
chemical and agribusiness interests.
On March 20, 1996, eight days after California Governor Pete
Wilson signed a bill overturning the state ban on methyl
bromide, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation
(DPR) published an internal report showing that when the
poison gas is used to fumigate homes, unsafe levels of
hazardous vapors can drift through empty pipes into
neighboring houses. The study also found that methyl bromide
levels outside homes under fumigation can be more than seven
times higher than the state safety standard, and that methyl
bromide can be detected inside closed houses up to 100 feet
away from the fumigated structure, even if the two buildings
are not connected by pipes of any kind.
DPR filed the report away as part of an ongoing study, not
advising state lawmakers, local officials or fumigation
companies of the threat to public health. The report came to
light after Assemblyman Fred Keeley, chair of a subcommittee
that oversees the agency's budget, requested that DPR
Director James Wells turn over documents on methyl bromide
use and regulation.
In an interview two days before Mero died, DPR's Wells
acknowledged that methyl bromide is "acutely toxic," adding,
"That's why we're so careful about how we control its use."
But an investigation by the coalition found no evidence the
agency had tightened controls on structural fumigation with
methyl bromide after the 1996 study, or since Mero's death.
"This is particularly damning lack of truthfulness on their
part," said Anne Schonfield, PAN North America. "They had
evidence that they knew was critical for the public to know,
and yet they kept it secret."
According to the state's Pesticide Use Reporting database,
almost 600,000 pounds of methyl bromide were used to fumigate
California homes and businesses in 1995, with the great
majority applied in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The
state database does not disclose the number of fumigations,
but the coalition estimates approximately 10,000 homes were
fumigated in 1995.
Instead of using methyl bromide, there are many alternative
treatment methods for structural pest control. Many pest
control companies have switched to non-toxic alternatives
like cooled liquid nitrogen that kills insects by freezing
them. Safe use of cooled liquid nitrogen requires careful
adherence to safety precautions, but does not present drift
or chronic toxicity problems.
Other pest control operators use propane heaters that raise
house temperatures to 150 degrees and non-toxic dusts that
kill pests through dehydration. These and other non-toxic
alternatives are much safer than chemical pesticides (such as
sulfuryl fluoride) that are often used in structures instead
of methyl bromide.
A complete copy of the report is available online at
Source: "Internal State Study Showed Danger of Drifting
Fumigant -- One Year Before Victim Died of Methyl Bromide
Poisoning," Californians for Pesticide Reform and
Environmental Working Group. August 20, 1997.
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