California Weakens Public's "Right to Know" on Methyl Bromide
January 10, 1993
In an action strongly criticized by environmental and labor
organizations, California's Environmental Protection Agency (Cal
EPA) changed the listing of methyl bromide under Proposition 65,
depriving rural residents' and farmworkers' of the
"right-to-know" when this pesticide is used in agricultural
production. Five environmental and labor organizations have sued
Cal EPA to ensure that the public is warned about all uses of
Under California's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act
of 1986 (Proposition 65), the state must publish and annually
update a list of chemical known to cause cancer, birth defects or
reproductive toxicity. The law, approved by California voters in
1986, is meant to inform and warn citizens about Their exposure
to these dangerous chemicals. As of January 1993, the state had
listed 540 chemicals under the Act.
California officially listed methyl bromide as a reproductive
toxin in January 1993 and gave farmers one year to start warning
residents up to 4 miles away when they applied the pesticide.
But bowing to pressure on Governor Wilson from 40 agricultural
organizations, Cal EPA made a last minute decision to change the
rule on methyl bromide. On December 22,Cal EPA announced that
under Proposition 65, the public will be warned about methyl
bromide only when the chemical is used in structural fumigation,
but not when it is used for agricultural purposes. This means
that farmers, who use the pesticide in their fields to sterilize
the soil before planting, will not have to warn farmworkers or
neighbors that they are using this dangerous fumigant.
Since only a small fraction of California's methyl bromide use is
in structural fumigation, Cal EPA's action means that the public
will not be warned about most methyl bromide applications. Cal
EPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment estimates
that in 1992, only 5% of the 19 million pounds of methyl bromide
used in California was for structural fumigation. The remaining
95% was for agricultural uses, including sterilizing soils for
strawberries, grapes, nursery plants and almond trees.
Labor and environmental organizations criticized the decision as
a politically motivated move to appease farmers and agricultural
interests. Mike Johnson, of the International Brotherhood of
Teamsters, called the move "a great, big Christmas present to
agriculture in an election year." Citizen groups also criticized
Cal EPA's decision since it was made during Christmas week with
almost no public notice.
As a result of the Cal EPA action, five labor and environmental
organizations filed suit and sought an emergency injunction
against Governor Wilson to prevent the partial removal of methyl
bromide from the Proposition 65 list. A hearing on the case will
be held in San Francisco on January 14 before Judge Stewart
Pollack. Judge Pollack will have to decide whether all uses of
methyl bromide should be listed under Proposition 65 or whether
Cal EPA's decision should stand (which will force the case to go
to trial). The law suit was filed by California Rural Legal
Assistance, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, AFL-CIO,
the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense
Scientific studies indicate that methyl bromide can cause birth
defects and genetic mutations in laboratory tests, regardless of
whether it is used in structural fumigation or in agriculture.
But Gary Karnes of the Central Coast Pesticide Coalition (CCPC)
maintains that Cal EPA made an artificial distinction between
people exposed to agricultural and structural uses of methyl
bromide: "The decision treats rural residents and farmworkers as
different classes of people. You can't say methyl bromide is a
reproductive toxin for one use [structural fumigation] and not
for another." Agriculture groups claim it would be a financial
burden for them to warm residents and farmworkers about the risks
of methyl bromide. But as Gary Karnes of CCPC put it, "People
have a right to know. They want to know what is being used in
their neighborhoods and they are intelligent enough to know
what's going on."
Sources: "Pesticide Warning Gets Modification", The Californian,
Dec. 24, 1993; "Methyl Bromide Health Concerns Said to Help Speed
Phaseout", Pesticide and Toxic Chemical News, Dec. 22, 1993.
Contact: Anne Schonfield at PANNA for more information about our
methyl bromide campaign.
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