By Javier Sierra
After working on some of the country's most fertile fields, Jorge Fernández and Guillermo Ruiz live barren lives.
For 14 years, both men worked in dozens of fields in California and Arizona applying one of the most dangerous pesticides known to man, methyl bromide, which is actually a nerve gas. Today, Jorge and Guillermo's health is devastated. They both complain of blurred vision, aches in their head, throat, ear and abdomen, and rashes. Jorge also suffers from "pressure in my chest" and sometimes feels like "I'm going to have a heart attack."
They've both ended up disabled and blame methyl bromide and their former bosses for their misfortune. They say they were never warned about this pesticide's enormous risks and that their bosses did not follow safety rules for its application.
People like Jorge and Guillermo might not face such risks if the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement signed by the United States which mandates that its signatories halt methyl bromide production by 2005, were allowed to work. But the treaty doesn't seem to mean much to the Bush Administration, which earlier this year pressed for exemptions that will allow American farmers to keep using millions of pounds of this powerful poison.
If the health of thousands of farm workers, who are overwhelmingly Hispanic, were not enough reason to eliminate methyl bromide, it turns out the pesticide causes major damage to the ozone layer, which protects us from the sun's dangerous ultra violet rays.
Methyl bromide is an odorless, colorless gas which is injected in the soil before planting, killing everything, good and bad. The EPA considers it a Category I toxin, the most powerful class of toxic chemicals. Medical tests of the effects of this substance match Jorge's and Guillermo's symptoms: Head aches, dizziness, nausea, vomits, blurred vision - and in its lethal phase - convulsions, psychosis and death. In California alone, 18 people have died and hundreds have been poisoned by methyl bromide.
But periodic exposure can also cause long-term devastating damage, including cancer and birth defects.
"I was never informed that this was harmful," says Jorge, who has been unable to work since September. "Now I know that after being applied, we should have waited 24 hours before entering the fields. But they would send us in right away."
"[My boss] did not obey the rules and failed to provide us with appropriate equipment," says Guillermo, who has also been out of work for eight months. "They would just give us a pair of plastic pants and a paper mask which provided no protection. There were days when I could not speak because within a couple of hours the gas would burn your throat."
You'd be speechless too if you read an Environmental Working Group report which shows that in the 1990s, 455 California elementary schools were within 1.5 miles of fields injected with methyl bromide and that hundreds of kids had to be evacuated because of high concentrations of this pesticide.
But it was the devastating effect of methyl bromide on the ozone layer that led 166 nations to sign the Montreal Protocol in 1987, one of the most important environmental victories in history. The pact mandated that its signatories completely phase out methyl bromide, except in extraordinary cases, by 2005.
But the Bush Administration is once again undermining international cooperation and agreements. Earlier this year the administration requested more than 50 "critical use exemptions" from the treaty that would allow the continued use of methyl bromide especially in agricultural fields. In March the administration was granted these exemptions, at least for this year. So now instead of phasing out this poison, workers like Jorge and Guillermo will continue applying it even thought there are viable alternatives for 95% of the uses of methyl bromide.
For the producers and agribusiness this is a windfall. Not in vain, the Gottwald family, the owners of Albemarle, one of the largest manufacturers of methyl bromide, donated $345,000 to Bush and the Republican Party between 2000 and 2002. And agribusiness gave $2.7 million to the Bush campaign in 2000.
According to a Pesticide Action Network study, the average American carries unhealthy levels of pesticides, with Mexican-Americans, like Jorge and Guillermo, showing disproportionately high levels.
"We get to do this job just because we are Mexicans," Jorge says. "Why doesn't Mr. Bush come and do it instead?"
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.
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