Earlier this summer, the Centers for Disease Control released a report (link is external) on a family vacation gone terribly wrong. Back in March, two adults and two teenagers vacationed at a condominium resort in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Unbeknownst to them, a pest control company was fumigating the condo below with the highly toxic chemical methyl bromide. Within two days they all were hospitalized.
Methyl bromide is particularly toxic to the brain and can lead to long-term effects in those who survive poisoning. Not all do. The family in question, all flown out to receive care on the mainland, eventually were released from acute hospital care, but three of the four required longer-term rehabilitation. When authorities launched an investigation, it turned out that the same pest control company had fumigated additional units in the condominium complex the prior October. Backtracking, others were found who had been ill at the time (not as severely) but never knew why. More personal details on the family were released in People (link is external), along with other data such as the methyl bromide trade name ("Meth-O-Gas") and a quote from a Terminix spokesperson, "We're thinking about the family, and we join the community in wishing them a speedy recovery."
On the books, it is illegal to use methyl bromide for residential fumigation in the United States. The jurisdictions can get a little fuzzy, though. The month following the Sirenusa apartments debacle on St. John, the U.S. EPA announced (link is external) that the source of the poison had been distributors in Puerto Rico and that an unspecified number of applications had occurred there as well. But it was the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture that has the direct enforcement authority over any violations.
Even Stateside, methyl bromide is still out there, exempted for “special” uses. As recently as last year (link is external) these included: strawberry fruit growers and those storing walnut and selected dried fruits in California; rice millers in the U.S. who are members of the USA Rice Millers Association; pet food manufacturing facilities in the U.S. who are members of the Pet Food Institute; and, last but not least, dry cured pork products produced by members of the National Country Ham Association and a few others.
Methyl bromide has come under strict scrutiny not because of its immediate lethality to humans, but because of the long-term hazard of ozone depletion, a particularly nasty side-effect of methyl bromide release into the atmosphere. It may be small consolation, that as a poisonous substance, methyl bromide is not even the worst fumigant player out there. Just a few years ago, we all dodged a bullet when methyl iodide, the Bonnie to bromide’s Clyde, did not even make it to “special exemption” status. One concern was methyl iodide’s propensity to contaminate ground water.
Even if not registered as a pesticide, methyl iodide continues to have industrial applications. A recent report in the medical journal Practical Neurology (link is external)tells of a 40-year-old man who worked in manufacturing methyl iodide for use in detergents and inhaled the chemical at work. He made it home from the factory, but his wife described him as ‘out of character’ (which seems a bit of an understatement, since he was reportedly having hallucinations of ‘wallpaper monkeys coming towards him in 3-D’). Remarkably, he returned to work the next day, only to have the onset of what proved to be intractable seizures. He was hospitalized in a coma for the next three weeks.
Methyl bromide and methyl iodide have yet another toxic chemical close family member, too. It is called methyl chloride. One use for that substance has been as an industrial refrigerant. Even though methyl chloride has fallen out of fashion, it is also still with us. This point was brought home my a long-term follow-up study released (link is external) last year. That report traced what happed to the unfortunate crew of an Icelandic fishing trawler. Back in 1963, the crew had been gassed by methyl chloride due to a leaking refrigeration system. Of 29 onboard, one died two days out at sea. As the years went by, among the survivors the risk of heart disease was more than doubled and for stroke, more than quintupled. And this was nothing compared to their 13-fold increased suicide risk.
The toxic triad of methyl bromide, iodide, and chloride coming at us by air land and sea raises doubts as to how effective any mere regulator can be in protecting us. Maybe what we really need is a toxic counter-strike force equivalent of Special Operations SeaAirLand (SEAL) fighters.
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