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Strawberries are a painful subject for Guillermo Ruiz. The farm worker believes his headaches, confusion and vision trouble stem from a decade working in the fields with methyl bromide, a pesticide that protects the berries with stunning efficiency.
Other nations watch as the United States keeps permitting wide use of methyl bromide for tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, Christmas trees and other crops, even though the U.S. signed an international treaty banning all but the most critical uses by 2005.
The chemical depletes the earth's protective ozone layer and can harm the human neurological system,
Odorless and colorless, methyl bromide is a gas that usually is injected by tractor into soil before planting, then covered with plastic sheeting to slow its release into the air. It wipes out plant parasites, disease and weeds. It results in a spectacular yield, reduced weeding costs and a longer growing season.
Workers who inhale enough of the chemical can suffer convulsions, coma and neuromuscular and cognitive problems. In rare cases, they can die.
The U.S. signed the Montreal Protocol treaty, committing to phase out methyl bromide by 2005 as part of the effort to protect the earth's ozone layer.
A provision allows for exemptions to prevent "market disruption." The U.S. has used it to persuade treaty signers to allow U.S. farmers to continue using the chemical.
The American Association of Pesticide Control Centers logged 395 reports of methyl bromide poisonings from 1999 to 2004.
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.
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.