2.3 Million pounds of poison: methyl bromide use near California schools

An ill wind, state's proposed rules for controversial pesticide ignore need for extra protection of children

provided by Environmental Working Group

Counties with the largest number of schools within 1.5 miles of methyl bromide use











ore than 2.3 million pounds of the acutely toxic pesticide methyl bromide are applied near California schools each year, but the state is proposing new regulations that ignore its own scientists' recommendations for protecting children from the lethal chemical, according to a report by Environmental Working Group. (EWG).

An Ill Wind: Methyl Bromide Use Near California Schools provides a county-by-county, school-by-school listing of all methyl bromide use within 1.5 miles of 455 public schools throughout the state in 1998, the latest year for which state pesticide use data is available. The report includes maps detailing the use of methyl bromide near schools in five major growing regions: Ventura/Santa Barbara, Monterey/Santa Cruz, the San Joaquin Valley, Orange County and San Diego County. The report is available online at www.ewg.org/california.

California is the world's largest user of methyl bromide, a volatile nerve gas that causes brain damage and birth defects in laboratory animals and has killed at least 19 people in California since 1985. State and independent air monitoring tests show that when methyl bromide is used on strawberries and other crops, potentially harmful concentrations of the chemical routinely drift from the application site into nearby schools and neighborhoods.

According to EWG's computer-assisted analysis, almost 70,000 California children attend 87 schools located near fields where more than 10,000 pounds of methyl bromide each was used in 1998. The potential for exposure was greatest on the Central Coast. Schools in Monterey, Ventura, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz counties ranked highest in the state for proximity to the greatest amounts of methyl bromide use, and use near those high-risk schools is rising sharply.

The state Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) is under court order to develop new methyl bromide regulations that will protect the public from harmful exposures to the chemical, as required by a 1989 state law. But DPR's proposed regulations ignore repeated recommendations from the agency's own scientists that an extra margin of safety is needed to protect children.

The state's proposal would also permit methyl bromide applications within 60 feet of homes, 50 feet of farm workers, and near schools during after-school extracurricular and community events.

"Some of the proposed regulations take a step back from the methyl bromide rules in effect under the Wilson Administration," said Bill Walker, EWG's California director. "It's very disappointing that it took a court order to make the Davis Administration obey the law, and even worse that instead of protecting public health, they're trying to protect the continued use of a deadly toxin."

The EWG report also found:


  • Although total statewide use of methyl bromide has gone up and down in recent years, use near the ten schools most at risk of exposure increased by 41 percent. from 1995 to 1998.
  • In areas of heavy methyl bromide use, some students face potential exposure 20 or more times per year. One San Diego County elementary school averaged almost one nearby application every week.
  • Potential exposure to methyl bromide at school falls disproportionately on children of color. More than 85 percent of the students enrolled at the schools nearest the most methyl bromide use were non-Anglo.

Environmental Working Group, 1904 Franklin St., Suite 515, Oakland, CA 94612; californiaewg.org,www.ewg.org.


Counties with the largest number of schools
within 1.5 miles of methyl bromide use

 County Methyl Bromide Use (lbs.)  Number of Schools  Enrollment in 1998
Ventura 569,578  42   37,437
Monterey  399,405 21  14,112 
Santa Barbara  201,460  14 7,840 
Santa Cruz  194,774  16  13,277 
Merced  109,399  21  10,464 
Fresno 97,111  45  26,031 
San Joaquin  86,155  25  13,082 
Orange  78,894  40  35,441 
San Diego 77,710  27  22,198 
Stanislaus  72,563  33  22,994 
Total  1,887,049  284  202,826 

SOURCE: Environmental Working Group, from 1998 pesticide use reports.