Methyl Bromide pesticide - long banned for indoor home uses -suspected of severely poisoning a family after vacation home is fumigated

There is some really troubling news about a family poisoned by a pesticide while on vacation at a luxury resort in the US Virgin Islands. Based on news reports and the investigation by EPA Region 2, a family of four is still hospitalized. These symptoms reportedly occurred after Terminix - an international pest control company - treated the unit below their rental unit in St. John with the pesticide methyl bromide, which is highly toxic to humans and has been banned from most uses.

According to news report, "The EPA has launched a 'comprehensive investigation,' [EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith] Enck said. Officials were sent to sample and monitor the apartments to see if any of the pesticide was left. 'We're looking at what happened here, which we consider an illegal application of methyl bromide,' Enck said... The Department of Justice is investigating Terminix, the company that applied the pesticide, Enck confirmed." (ABC News Apr 5, 2015)

According to press reports, an investigation by the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources found that Terminix used methyl bromide products on several occasions at other residences. During their inspection of Terminix on St. Croix Island, press accounts indicate that investigators found that the methyl bromide was not only used improperly, but was also being stored improperly. Terminix was ordered to stop using all methyl bromide products, and to report any use of the product over the last year.

For many of the most dangerous pesticides, EPA will require that they only be used by "certified applicators" as a measure to mitigate the potential adverse health and environmental effects. But if these certified applicators are not being properly trained or supervised, then this mitigation measure doesn't work. And perhaps these pesticides are too dangerous for anyone to use and they should just be banned altogether.

EPA must conduct a thorough investigation into how this happened and whether such lax oversight by local authorities, EPA, and by Terminix and other applicators is a widespread occurrence. (see EPA Region 2 information)

EPA should also overhaul the certified applicator program to ensure it doesn't happen again. Elimination of the certified applicator as a mitigation method might be warranted if it is a widespread problem.

Why is methyl bromide still around?

Methyl bromide is a colorless, odorless gas used to fumigate pests. EPA lists the acute hazard risks to include: lung inflammation (pulmonary edema) and impaired breathing; neurological effects including headaches, dizziness, fainting, weakness, speech impairment, numbness, twitching and tremors; in severe cases paralysis and convulsions are possible.

The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the product reportedly used in the Virgin Islands residences, called Meth-O-Gas Q, warns of the following hazards: highly toxic; may be fatal if inhaled; contact can result in chemical burns; respiratory distress; lung damage; cardiac arrest; may cause central nervous system effects.

Methyl bromide is also slated for a global phase-out because it is highly destructive to the stratospheric ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. Destruction of this protective ozone layer results in more damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation getting to the earth's surface, which increases our risk of skin cancer, cataracts, immune disorders, and other diseases. NRDC has long fought to rid the world of this terribly toxic and ozone-depleting chemical (see 2012 Congressional testimony from NRDC expert David Doniger)

Because pesticides are toxic by design, EPA must register a pesticide before it can be manufactured and distributed in the U.S. Under federal law - the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (or FIFRA for short) - EPA must assess whether the pesticide will cause any unreasonable adverse impacts on human health or the environment. If it causes health or environmental harms, but EPA determines that the economic benefits of the pesticide outweigh those concerns, then FIFRA still allows the pesticide to be sold and distributed in the US. The standards can be a bit stricter for pesticides leaving residues on food, under a separate law.

And, therein lays the rub. Since 2005, U.S. production and import of methyl bromide is banned, except for uses that qualify for "quarantine and pre-shipment" purposes and for certain agriculture applications under a "critical use exemption" loophole or an emergency exemption. These loopholes mean that methyl bromide products continue to be available.

EPA must take steps to immediately stop the continued use of this dangerous product.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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