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Monday, January 30, 2006

Continued (Legal) Use of a (Sort of) Banned Pesticide: Methyl Bromide

The Scientist (which is, for a while yet, free!) has an interesting article on the subject, describing the complications from banning a substance that works really well at what it does (destroy plant-inhibiting pathogens) but also has the unfortunate tendency to cause Bad Things:

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the chemical spreads so easily that up to 95% of the methyl bromide injected into soil eventually makes its way into the atmosphere. There, in high concentrations, it can cause a wide range of health effects, such as failure of the central nervous and respiratory systems. A 2003 study by the National Cancer Institute of male pesticide applicators found that those who handled methyl bromide had a higher risk of prostate cancer.

In 1997, the product was banned (mostly), with a phase-out date for developed countries of 2005 and developing countries of 2015.  And yet many farmers continue to use it (around 19,000 metric tons last year in the U.S. alone) under "Critical Use Exemptions" and, according to the story, it may be that more effort is being put into maintaining those exemptions than finding an effective and safer alternative.  Why are the exemptions granted?

In 2000, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a report estimating that if growers had to switch from methyl bromide to the available alternatives, it could cost americans as much as $450 million each year (see chart below). Since that report, the US government has filed for exemption after exemption from the methyl bromide phase-out, under the loophole that people can continue to use the chemical if no "technically and economically feasible" alternative exists.

The story suggests, however, that in fact reasonable alternatives have been developed and points out that Holland (which once was Europe's biggest methyl bromide consumer) phased it out entirely a decade ago...but then also cites credible folks who say the contrary.

Finally, there's a web extra with an interesting story about a fellow who claims to have developed an alternative made from mustard and pepper.

From a torts perspective, I note that Equal Justice has this 2002 report about exposure near fields, but it does not appear to have become a significant tort as yet.  More generally, the entire article presents a nice instance of risk-benefit balancing with no easy answers and might be interesting to discuss in either a Torts or Products Liability course.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/tortsprof/2006/01/continued_legal.html

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