Pesticide Persisting Beyond Scheduled Elimination Date

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"Pesticide Persisting Beyond Scheduled Elimination Date"

Newspaper article

By: Felicity Barringer

Date: October 8, 2004

Source: Barringer, Felicity. "Pesticide Persisting Beyond Scheduled Elimination Date." The New York Times. (October 8, 2004).

About the Author: Felicity Barringer is a reporter for the New York Times who has written numerous articles related to environmental topics and other issues of social concern.


Methyl bromide is an important agricultural chemical used as a fumigant for treating soil, storage facilities, and fruit and vegetable plants to ensure that microorganisms do not damage valuable crops. However, there is opposition to its use, since methyl bromide is considered a strong contributor to the reduction of the earth's ozone layer, and the farm workers who apply methyl bromide are known to have health problems, including increased rates of cancer.

The Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to reduce degradation of the ozone layer, came into effect in 1987. Following its signing, the use of methyl bromide and other ozone-depleting chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) began to drop significantly. When countries become party to the protocol, they pledge to systematically reduce the use of damaging chemicals, including methyl bromide, in accordance with the standards of the protocol. Ozone-depleting chemicals have application in industry, agriculture, and many other human activities.

Over the last few years though, the use of methyl bromide has begun to rise in many parts of the world. In 2005, the United States, one of the initial signatory countries to the Montreal Protocol, obtained international approval for a 16 percent increase in the use of methyl bromide over its 2003 levels. Some argue that this trend will reduce progress made toward lessening the damage being done to earth's protective ozone layer. Methyl bromide is considered forty times more harmful to the ozone layer than other ozone-harming gases.

The ozone layer naturally occurs in the earth's stratosphere (31 miles or 50 kilometers high), and is important for protecting the earth's surface from the sun's harmful ultra-violet (UV) radiation, which can cause skin cancer, damage vegetation, and increase global warming. Ozone molecules (chemically O3) are made up of three oxygen atoms, and are formed naturally from the combination of UV radiation from the sun and oxygen gas (O2). The ozone layer is naturally denser near the poles and thinner near the equator. Ironically, ozone is a major component of smog, and can be harmful to humans at the earth's surface.

Ozone-degrading chemicals released in the atmosphere interact with ozone and sunlight to break apart the O3 molecules. Although thinning of the ozone layer occurs throughout the stratosphere, the most severe degradation happens near the South Pole, and to a lesser degree near the North Pole. Significant depletion of the ozone layer forms a hole over Antarctica annually, as ozone-depleting chemicals react with intense spring and summer sunlight.

When British scientists first took measurements of the ozone hole over Antarctica in 1985, they thought something was wrong with their equipment, as the depletion was much more significant than they had expected. Shortly after the magnitude of the ozone hole was realized, the international community enacted the Montreal Protocol. Although the ozone hole reached a record size of 10.9 million square miles (28.3 million square kilometers) in September of 2000, progress towards slowing ozone thinning has been reported. Currently, over 180 countries have signed the Montreal Protocol.


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In addition to the United States, other countries who have signed the Montreal Protocol have been applying for permission to increase their methyl bromide use. There is concern that this will lead to a global increase in the use of methyl bromide and other harmful chemicals. Scientists and government leaders agree that continued adherence to Montreal Protocol, and even strengthening its mandates, is vital to ensure that the thinning of the ozone layer diminishes, and perhaps begins to recover completely.

Government and agricultural leaders in the United States say that more needs to be done to find replacements for methyl bromide. Many large-scale industrial agriculture firms claim that using methyl bromide is necessary for them to maintain their profitability and meet the demands of the consumer. Although they claim to want a healthy environment, they say there are no viable alternatives to using methyl bromide. Some argue that methyl bromide's harmful impacts on the environment can be contained with the development of application technology that traps the gas so it is unable to escape into the atmosphere.

There are other viewpoints that say the use of methyl bromide continues to be allowed because large agricultural firms are not interested in seeking alternatives to their current methods. Claims that methyl bromide is one more piece of evidence that large-scale agriculture firms operate in an unsustainable manner are mentioned. Organic farmers, and those who use more environmentally conscious agriculture approaches, claim they are able to be profitable without using harmful chemicals such as methyl bromide.

Opponents of methyl bromide use also claim that low paid agricultural workers are in immediate danger from the toxicity of the chemical, as they are paid low wages and forced to apply the chemicals. In some cases, it is reported that these workers are not given the proper protective gear for applying the chemicals.



United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Division of Technology, Industry and Economics. Sourcebook of Technologies for Protecting the Ozone Layer: Alternatives to Methyl Bromide. Paris: UNEP, 2003.


"Fruit Pesticide Threat to the Ozone Layer." New Scientist 2476 (December 04, 2004).

Macilwain, Collin. "Organic: Is It the Future of Farming?" Nature 428 (April 22, 2004): 792-793.

Web sites

Kirby, Alex. "Arctic Ozone Damage Likely by 2020." BBC News Online (October 26, 2000). 〈〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).

"Ozone Depletion." United States Environmental Protection Agency. 〈〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).

"The Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol." United Nations Development Programme. 〈〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).