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FUMING OVER PESTICIDE; RESIDENTS UPSET AT USE OF METHYL BROMIDE NEAR HOMES.

Byline: Deborah Sullivan Daily News Staff Writer

At the entrance to Buena High School in Ventura, white-suited figures in gas masks hoisted signs stating ``No permit for poison gas!'' and ``Ban Methyl Bromide.''

Staffers with the Environmental Defense Center passed out bushels of juicy, organically grown strawberries - proof, they said, that the fruit can be grown without the toxic pesticide.

With berries tumbling from his hands, a tow-headed, barefoot 5-year-old toted a sign reading, ``Stop poisoning our children.''

Those demonstrators joined 150 others last week in what officials said was

the first public protest in Ventura County against the use of methyl bromide. Their opposition adds to a national outcry against the pesticide, one of the most controversial chemicals used on farms today.

Federal law bans the chemical starting in 2001. Although California law called for shelving it in March 1996, a reprieve last year by Gov. Pete Wilson allows its use until the end of this year.

During Tuesday's protest at a hearing called by the Department of Pesticide Regulation, residents challenged methyl bromide fumigation permits issued to two Ventura County farms bordering their homes.

The purpose of the hearing was to determine if the permits issued by the county agricultural commissioner to Montalvo Ranch in Ventura and Pleasant Valley Berry Farm in Camarillo complied with state laws on use of the pesticide. The residents however, appeared determined to put methyl bromide itself on trial.

``Methyl bromide is too dangerous to be used next to homes, schools and day care centers,'' said Raili West, owner of a child care center that abuts Montalvo Ranch.

During fumigation at the ranch last year, West said, she and her husband experienced headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue, while her two youngest children threw inconsolable tantrums.

``My family cannot be subjected to this chemical again,'' said West, 31. ``This is a public health issue and not a right-to-farm issue, and it is time to start treating it as one.''

Teresa Thorne, communications director of the California Strawberry Council, speaking on behalf of Charles Nakama, the owner of Pleasant Valley Berry Farm, said growers strictly follow state regulations and are confident those rules protect their neighbors.

``Obviously, we would do nothing and would use no product that we wouldn't deem safe,'' she said. ``But that's not our decision. It is a scientific and regulatory decision. It's our job to abide by the stringent regulations that DPR sets for the use of any pesticide.''

Residents, however, fear those rules aren't strict enough.

Economic realities

Methyl bromide is a gaseous pesticide injected under the soil of agricultural fields to kill insects, rodents, weeds, fungus, bacteria and other pests that attack strawberries.

Ventura County ranks second only to Monterey County in strawberry production statewide, and the berries make up Ventura County's second-largest crop, said county Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail.

In 1996, Ventura County farmers produced 150,864 tons of strawberries, valued at more than $142 million.

An estimated 750,000 pounds of methyl bromide are used on those crops each year, McPhail said.

``Without (methyl bromide), their production would be less than half of what they get now,'' he said.

However, the chemical's days are waning.

Because methyl bromide damages the ozone layer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to phase out its use by 2001. Its effects on humans also are a concern.

A 1984 law gave chemical firms until 1991 to complete health studies of pesticides. That was extended until March 1996, but the firms requested more time and the deadline was moved back again to December 1997.

From 1982 to 1994, 464 cases of possible or confirmed methyl bromide poisoning were documented in California, including 27 in Ventura County, the Department of Pesticide Regulation reported. Of those, 290 occurred in agriculture, 181 through occupational exposure, and 109 by other means.

``Methyl bromide is a neurotoxin,'' said Paul Russell, a pediatrician serving as interim county health officer. ``It can cause headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea, visual disturbances, numbness. In severe cases, it can progress to tremors, seizures, coma, death.''

Despite its potentially serious health effects, Russell said he has found no studies on its effects on children. And safety thresholds designed for adults may not apply.

``There is no known safe level with regard to exposure of children to methyl bromide,'' he said.

Furthermore, symptoms of moderate methyl bromide poisoning are similar to those of the flu or other viruses, making them difficult to diagnose, he said.

Local exposure feared

A year ago, neighbors of Montalvo Ranch began experiencing many of those symptoms.

Around that time, McPhail said, Montalvo Ranch treated 78 acres of strawberry fields with 300 pounds per acre of pesticides - 67 percent methyl bromide and 33 percent chloropicrin, or tear gas, which is added to give the odorless gas a scent.

Residents became suspicious when they learned of the fumigation. They also learned that some of their back yards fell within the 30-foot buffer zone required between the fumigated area and nearby homes. Wheezing, aching and teary-eyed, they speculated that their symptoms might be the result of pesticide exposure.

``After learning how toxic this chemical is, things clicked, and we realized why we were sick, why our neighbors were sick,'' said Lynda Uvari, 42.

Although some visited their doctors in the weeks after the fumigation, the medical exams were too late to tell whether their ailments were caused by methyl bromide or by something else.

Tests of the field by the Environmental Defense Center found pesticide levels outside the buffer zone to be as high as 1,900 parts per billion - nine times higher than the state's 24-hour standard of 210 parts per billion.

However, Department of Pesticide Regulation officials said the limit is averaged over 24 hours, so brief exposure to higher levels should not be a problem.

In fact, John Sanders, chief of the department's environmental monitoring and pest management branch, said the state standard for workers allows much higher exposure - 5,000 parts per billion over eight hours.

``Then 1,900 parts per billion for a few minutes should not really be relevant,'' he said.

Still, residents resolved that this year they would fight to keep methyl bromide from being used near their homes.

``I am not anti-agriculture,'' said Edward Burris, 61. ``I like the idea of strawberries and agricultural crops being grown back of my house. What I am against is being poisoned by this thing that's being permitted.''

Residents' concern spreads

During Tuesday's hearing, testimony of Montalvo Ranch neighbors only fueled the fears of residents at Lamplighter Mobile Home Estates next to Pleasant Valley Berry Farms in Camarillo.

``We felt we were very concerned, and now we understand our concerns, based on the testimony of Montalvo Ranch residents about what happened to them,'' said Mike Lorimer, 36.

Several residents surveyed their neighbors and compiled a list of those who might be particularly sensitive to the chemical. Of some 400 Lamplighter residents, Jo Ann Van Reenan said, 93 are over the age of 65, 56 are preschool children, 94 have allergies, 54 suffer respiratory ailments like asthma or emphysema, and four are on supplemental oxygen.

``We believe methyl bromide is not going to improve the health of anyone,'' Van Reenan said.

Thorn, of the Strawberry Council, said Nakama and other farmers will try to resolve residents' worries about their operations.

``The farming community in Ventura County realizes that we are now farming in a much more urban environment and we want to do what we can to be good neighbors,'' she said.

Officials say they have already made concessions to the neighbors' concerns. Pleasant Valley Berry Farm will be allowed to use only 180 pounds of methyl bromide per acre - half the maximum amount allowed. And the permit allows methyl bromide application on about 10 of it 94 acres. The Department of Pesticide Regulation will monitor the fumigation, and McPhail, the local agriculture commissioner, will decide whether to allow it on the rest of the plot.

Although Montalvo Ranch is required by its permit to set a 30-foot buffer zone between its fields and nearby homes, McPhail said the owner, Jesse Garcia, has voluntarily agreed to leave a space twice that large to ensure residents' safety. Garcia did not return phone calls.

But residents were alarmed when Ojai meteorologist Rob Sears used different methods to calculate pesticide levels and said methyl bromide should be kept at least 300 feet from homes.

They said they doubted official claims that the chemical can be used safely near their homes.

``It seems the more we hear about methyl bromide, the less we know,'' said Don Mender of Camarillo. ``So the odds on it being dangerous are at least 50-50. For me that's too high.''

Jim Wells, director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation, said, however, that the rules on methyl bromide application have been carefully calibrated to ensure its safe usage.

``There's no chemical that can't be used safely and no chemical that can't cause hazard,'' he said.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: (color in SIMI and CONEJO editions only) Lynda Uvari, sons Alex, 9, and Andrew, 6, and their dog Shandy live near a field in Ventura that was fumigated with methyl bromide last year.

John Lazar/Special to the Daily News
COPYRIGHT 1997 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 11, 1997
Words:1540
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