Outgoing Administrator Approves Increased Use of Cancer-Causing Chemical Before Transfer to HHS

WASHINGTON, DC (December 16, 2004) -- Outgoing Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt will release regulations today allowing a 2 million pound increase in 2005 in the use of methyl bromide, an ozone-depleting and cancer-causing farm chemical, in violation of both an international treaty and the Clean Air Act. This new action follows several other decisions by the Bush administration to allow more use of the pesticide.

"Catering to a handful of big chemical and agribusiness interests, the Bush administration is actually expanding the use of this dangerous, ozone-destroying chemical," said David Doniger, policy director of the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) Climate Center. "More methyl bromide means more ozone depletion and higher risks of skin cancer, cataracts, and immune diseases for millions of Americans."

After a 12 year phase-out process under the treaty, known as the Montreal Protocol, methyl bromide production and use is supposed to end at the close of this year, with very highly restricted exemptions available only for "critical uses." But under the new EPA regulations, methyl bromide use will actually increase in 2005.

The EPA exemptions will allow agribusiness interests to use 19.7 million pounds of methyl bromide next year, an increase of nearly 2 million pounds over the amount used in 2003. More than three-quarters of the chemical will be used by two crops -- Florida tomatoes and California strawberries.

The EPA exemptions will also allow a handful of U.S. chemical companies to produce and import 17 million pounds methyl bromide in 2005, even though they have already stockpiled more than 22 million pounds of the chemical. The rules violate conditions that countries use up the available stockpile of methyl bromide before authorizing new production -- conditions the Bush administration agreed to in Montreal Protocol talks with 180 countries just last March.

The Bush administration's move contrasts sharply with action this week by the European Union, which is dramatically cutting methyl bromide use across the continent, including the tomato- and strawberry-growing regions of Italy, Spain, and other southern European countries. While American use of this ozone-depleting chemical in 2005 will grow to 35 percent of the amount used in 1991 (when the phase-out process began), the Europeans will cut their use to just 14 percent of their 1991 starting point. "The United States used to be the world leader in protecting the ozone layer, under presidents stretching back to Ronald Reagan," Doniger said. "Why is the Bush administration walking the other way?"

The new exemptions follow a pattern by the Bush administration of industry-friendly increases in methyl bromide use. This September, USDA published new requirements that could double worldwide methyl bromide use by providing for raw wood pallets and packaging materials to be sprayed with the chemical, even though the government admits this will not solve the problem of foreign pest invasions. In August, USDA proposed a separate new system of domestic exemptions that could allow farmers to increase use even above the levels allowed by EPA today.

The Montreal Protocol, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and supported by subsequent U.S. presidents from both political parties, is intended to protect the ozone layer, which shields us from cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation that increases risks of skin cancer, cataracts and immunological disease. Methyl bromide also causes prostate cancer in agricultural workers and others who are directly exposed, according to the National Cancer Institute.