Christmas tree exporters drop use of toxic methyl bromide

POSTED: 11/2/11 12:06 PM

Unloading Christmas trees will be a bit less hazardous this year now that the shipments will not be sprayed with methyl bromide.

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – Exporters of Christmas trees have reached an agreement with the government of St. Maarten to abstain from using the highly toxic methyl bromide gas to fumigate their trees. “None of the containers will be sprayed with methyl bromide,” inspector Mervin Butcher told this newspaper. “The suppliers of these trees will use an alternative chemical product that is just as effective. Internationally, the use of methyl bromide is being phased out.”

Last week, the inspection department of the Ministry of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication said in a press release that wholesalers and retailers must have a phyto-sanitary certificate from the exporting country showing that the trees have been fumigated with methyl bromide before departure. The inspectorate has now accepted that the trees will be fumigated with another (still chemical) product.

According to the American environmental Protection Agency EPA, the following chemicals are alternatives for methyl bromide: 1,3-dichloropropene, chloropicrin (and a combination of these two), dazomet, dimethyl disulfide, iodomethane, metam sodium and a combination of metam sodium and chloropicrin.

Butcher declined to reveal which alternative product the exporters will now use to fumigate the trees. Fumigating is necessary to make sure imported trees are free of insects and pests that could harm local trees and vegetation.

Had the containers been sprayed with methyl bromide they would have had to be handled with extreme care; unloading the trees could have resulted in serious health problems and even in death.

This newspaper found information about the fumigant in Organic NZ, a web site of the Soil and Health Association of New-Zealand. Steffan Browning, the spokesman for Organic NZ and a candidate in the country’s parliamentary elections later this month, wrote in answer to questions from this newspaper that the risk-level for those unloading the containers “will be in proportion to how well the fumigant Was vented following the initial fumigation.” Whatever the situation is, Browning wrote, “the shipments should be treated with respect because there will still be degassing during shipping.”

Browning pointed out that a couple of years ago Dutch port workers went on strike because of the risks they were exposed to by containers that had not been properly vented before freighting. “Allowing containers to be vented again before unloading would be wise, with repeated testing as the container is entered stage by stage,” Browning wrote.

The 57-year-old candidate for the Green Party in Kaikoura, New Zealand, added that those tests ought to be done with best quality monitoring equipment. “The neurotoxic and carcinogenic gas is tasteless, odorless and colorless,” he wrote.

Potted Christmas trees will absorb more of the toxic methyl bromide than chopped trees, because there is more absorbent material. Home owners who buy a fumigated tree will also be exposed to a certain level of degassing – meaning that the tree could still emit toxic methyl bromide gases in the living room.

However, there is no reason to panic, Browning wrote. “I do not think that there will be much risk from bare plant material after it has been well vented. Good air flow if potted and fumigated would be wise.”

Browning wrote that there are alternatives for the use of methyl bromide, but that their effectiveness depends on the type of pest the product is required to eliminate. “Some can be eliminated through heat, CO2 or vacuum.

“The best alternative would be to adapt a local plant for the event. That is far more environmentally friendly and it puts a local flavor on your Christmas,” Browning concluded.

Methyl bromide is a highly toxic gas; it was used in the Netherlands until the nineties to sterilize greenhouses, before it was completely banned. In New Zealand, the government put up $2,.5 million for a five-year research into alternatives for the use of methyl bromide.

“People are dying from exposure to methyl bromide, and New Zealand’s significant use of this ozone depleting gas is expected to triple during the five year period that this trickle of funding is spent,” Steffan Browning was quoted as saying on the web site of Organic NZ. “Economic reasons should be the last basis for action, after health and environment.”

Browning wants his government to spend more money on the research. He pleads for “rapid implementation of existing alternatives, not the sham of further, although applied, research.”

New Zealand’s forest industry relies heavily on the use of methyl bromide to fumigate logs. St. Maarten obviously does not have such an industry, but the situation down under indicates that fumigated imported Christmas trees on the island ought to be handled with extreme care.

Browning: “Communities around New Zealand, especially at log exporting ports are at immediate health risk from cancers and neurological disorders such as motor neurone disease. The global community in turn shares the negative effects from enhanced ultra violet radiation as the ozone layer is depleted.”

Organic NZ has campaigned against a ban on the use of methyl bromide in New Zealand for decades. So far, the government is not really listening. Organic NZ claims that methyl bromide use in the forest industry has increased tenfold since the country signed the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer in 2001.

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