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US farmers use pesticide despite treaty
Updated: 2005-11-28 09:30

Advocates for farmworkers contend in a San Francisco Superior Court lawsuit that even California's exposure limits to protect neighbors are too lax. State regulators lately have emphasized stricter enforcement and tougher penalties.

Ruiz and Jorge Fernandez, two California farmworkers, say they saw plenty wrong in the strawberry fields they worked, starting with the dogs, birds and deer that lay lifeless when the workers arrived to remove plastic sheeting from fumigated fields. "That's how we knew this was a dangerous chemical," Ruiz said.

His own symptoms added concern. "My eyes watered. I threw up. It gave me headaches," he said.

Ruiz and Jorge Fernandez say they developed nervousness and depression by the time they stopped working in 2003. They saw the plastic come loose in high winds or leak when animals punctured it. Other workers had symptoms, they said, but kept silent because they feared for their jobs.

The two are in a disability dispute with their former employer, who denies allegations that workers were forced to remove plastic sooner than required.

Growers feel hamstrung. Despite millions of dollars spent on research, no alternative addresses all soils and pests as well as methyl bromide, they say.

"It just works so good and just does so many things so well," said Mike Miller, a strawberry grower in Salinas, Calif.

He and other farmers believe the fumigant is safe when used correctly.

"I'm comfortable working with the product and educating our personnel," said Jim Grainger, a fourth-generation farmer who grows 700 acres of steak tomatoes in Florida.

Among those pushing for continued exemptions are financial heavy hitters such as the family of Floyd Gottwald, vice chairman of methyl bromide producer Albemarle Corp. of Richmond, Va. The Gottwalds contributed more than $420,000 to President Bush's campaigns and to national Republican Party organizations over the past six years.

The size of the U.S. inventory of methyl bromide inventory is secret. The EPA refuses to disclose how much, saying the figure is confidential business information. Doniger's group says in a suit against the agency that the amount exceeds 11,000 tons.

Its continued use makes people such as Lynda Uvari uneasy.

In her Southern California neighborhood of Ventura, people thought they had the flu a few years back. Then they noticed that their illness coincided with fumigation of a nearby field. They settled a suit with the strawberry grower.

Now Uvari wonders about methyl bromide's legacy, even whether it could be linked to her son's endocrine problems.

"That's in the back of our minds all the time," Uvari said. "You always question."

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