Saying the pesticide is too toxic to use near schools, a coalition of environmentalists and farm workers Wednesday called on state officials to uphold a long-threatened ban of methyl bromide unless it can be proven safe.
The coalition staged a small demonstration with flag-waving United Farm Workers' representatives next to Ocean View Junior High to show that some schoolyards push against strawberry fields blanketed with the pesticide.
"We now know that methyl bromide is much more toxic than we thought," said Marc Chytilo, chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center. "It's too toxic and too hazardous to use near our schools and our neighborhoods."
The Santa Barbara-based group released statistics showing that Ventura County farmers applied more than 1.4 million pounds of the fumigant in 1992 to control pests, mostly in strawberry fields.
The county's use of the pesticide was the fifth highest in the state, behind Monterey, Kern, Merced and Fresno counties.
Wednesday's demonstration was one of many held throughout the state to protest the agriculture industry's request that Gov. Pete Wilson call a special legislative session to prevent the threatened ban of the pesticide.
Under the Birth Defects Prevention Act of 1984, the manufacturer of methyl bromide has until March to either submit studies on health effects to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation or stop distributing the chemicals.
The company said it cannot meet the deadline, which already had been extended four years ago. But state officials said they are partly responsible, because they did not agree until last January on topics that the methyl bromide study needed to address.
Sympathetic lawmakers have tried to push legislation to again extend the company's deadline, but the bill failed to pass the Health Committee before the 1995 session ended. Now farm groups want the governor to call a special session so the bill can quickly become law.
The governor is considering the request, said Kristine Berman, a Wilson spokeswoman. Wilson told farmers earlier this week that he understands a suspension of methyl bromide would place California farmers at a competitive disadvantage with growers from other states and countries.
Methyl bromide is used in Ventura County mostly to rid strawberry fields of a wide range of pests, from microscopic nematodes and fungi to rodents and weed seeds.
Farmers inject the chemicals about 18 inches into the soil and cover the fields with plastic to prevent the pesticide from quickly escaping. The powerful chemicals virtually sterilize the soil, so that delicate strawberry roots can settle into disease-free furrows.
Farmers say they have not been able to come up with anything as effective at destroying pests. Without methyl bromide, they project that they would lose 25% or more of their crops to pest damage.
"It's going to be devastating unless they come up with an alternative pesticide," said Don Wall, a longtime strawberry grower. If the ban takes effect, he said, the impact would not come until next year's crops. Farmers typically fumigate in late summer and fall.
Environmentalists say there are other ways to sterilize the soil, such as steam treatments, heating the soil with the sun or relying on different chemicals. They say the agriculture industry will not come up with an alternative until forced to do so.
Scientists have pointed to methyl bromide escaping from fields as a primary factor in the destruction of the Earth's ozone layer, which shields plants and animals from harmful exposure to ultraviolet radiation. The thinning ozone layer has been linked to increases in skin cancers, eye cataracts and other health problems.
The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to phase out methyl bromide by 2001 as part of an international crackdown on ozone-depleting chemicals.
Locally, the chemicals present an acute problem for field workers, said Rosalba Jasso, a United Farm Workers representative.
"This pesticide is odorless, so when the workers go into the fields, they don't smell it," Jasso said. "They come out of strawberry fields with headaches and other problems and don't know the reason."