City works to ensure safer fumigant use

Joe Carlson

Buried beneath a full agenda of committee reports at a recent neighborhood meeting lies an item simply called the “pest control issue.”
But many of the 30 people attending the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association meeting shift uncomfortably as Ward 2 Councilwoman Joan Campbell stands to report: Although the danger from exposure to a pesticide used in a nearby Marcy-Holmes flour mill might still be present, the city is working with the company to ensure safer use of the chemical in the future.
One thing city officials are insisting on is for the milling company to notify local residents and businesses — as well as officials at the University — of future fumigations.
An artist dies
Last August, Santos Fernandez, 54, died while working late at night in his art studio.
The Hennepin County medical examiner concluded Fernandez died from exposure to methyl bromide. The toxic fumigant was used that night in a nearby flour mill owned by Archer Daniels Midland Milling Co., 335 Main St. S.E.
Officials and attorneys at the mill refused to comment on the subject of methyl bromide for this article.
The death has resulted in a lawsuit from the man’s widow, Mary Fernandez, who wants to hold the milling company, the fumigation company and the man who applied the chemical responsible. She is suing for more than $50,000.
Methyl bromide is an odorless, colorless gas used to kill “anything you want it to kill,” including insects and rats, said Michael Schommer, a spokesman for the state’s agriculture department. The chemical is used largely for soil fumigation in agriculture, but is also used for indoor fumigation as well.
A Kansas firm, Industrial Fumigants Inc., applies the fumigant for the milling company and has for years. A former employee in the mill, Steve Vierling, said the mill has been fumigated with the chemical at least since Archer Daniels Midland bought the mill from Pillsbury in the early 1990s.
“One death is all it takes as far as I’m concerned,” Campbell said in response to the company’s otherwise officially seamless track record with the fumigant. With that in mind, Campbell and the state Department of Agriculture set out to stop Industrial Fumigants from performing another fumigation with the same chemical Feb. 13.
First, the agriculture department requested that the mill not be sprayed with methyl bromide, to which the company agreed, Schommer said. So the company then decided to switch to an organic pesticide less toxic than methyl bromide. But pressure from the city officials stopped that spraying as well. The fumigations are now on hold for an indefinite period.
City and state officials didn’t want to stop the company from fumigating their mills, Campbell said. Rather, they wanted to ensure safer usage with more community notification in the future.
“We need to be extraordinarily careful at that building” said Bill Anderson, a pollution control expert with Minneapolis inspections. “Whenever you have a death or an injury, and you’re still investigating … it argues for caution.”
According to a letter dated Feb. 12 from a manager in the state Department of Agriculture, the mill will be required to perform a number of steps before the company can legally fumigate again.
At the least, the company was required to upgrade plumbing systems, which are one pathway through which the gas could have traveled to Fernandez’s studio, Anderson said. “That’s really our main concern,” he said, because of the underground connections to local houses and businesses.
The letter, from department manager David Read, required the mill to re-apply for a permit to use the chemical and submit plans for monitoring and reacting to chemical leaks. Read also asked company officials to notify the University and local Marcy-Holmes residents of future fumigations.
The agriculture department has legal jurisdiction over pesticide use in the city.
A disputed chemical
Methyl bromide is a Restricted Use Pesticide, a category of chemicals that requires training and licensing before it can be used, said chemical expert Vern Walter. The restricted use label is reserved for compounds that are inherently toxic by their very nature, he said.
Walter, who has used methyl bromide for nearly 50 years, attended a conference on the chemical Monday at the University.
Short term, mild exposure to methyl bromide can produce headaches, dizziness, nausea and pain in the chest and throat. Larger doses can induce slurred speech, blurred vision, temporary blindness, confusion and sweating. Extreme inhalation can cause lung swelling, congestion, hemorrhaging in the brain, kidney damage, numbness and death.
Methyl bromide is odorless and colorless; therefore victims might not realize they’ve ever been exposed to it. Although initial symptoms can appear three to 12 hours after inhalation, the effects of serious exposure — damage to the nervous system, kidneys, lungs and throat — might not surface for 48 hours or several months. Walter said although acute exposure to the fumigant can be dangerous, low-level inhalation over a period of time is generally not a serious risk.
“It is not cumulative, otherwise everyone in our business would be dead,” Walter said.
A World Wide Web site maintained by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reports that although no long-term effects are likely from a single, small exposure, more serious inhalation can cause comas and permanent damage to the brain and nervous system.
However, acute exposure to methyl bromide is rare because the chemical dissipates quickly, said Hillary Carpenter, a toxicologist for the state Department of Health. For this reason, he said those who neighbor the Archer Daniels Midland property would be unlikely to face poisonous doses.
Another Department of Health toxicologist, Carl Herbrandson, said given proper safety measures, the chemical can be used safely in urban settings. “If it was me, I probably would not be concerned.”
Walter said the chemical is used extensively in California produce fields without adverse exposure in nearby houses.
About 1,000 cases of methyl bromide poisoning have been documented in the more than 50 years the chemical has been used. Effects have ranged from eye irritation to death, according to the Extoxnet Web site maintained through a cooperation of four major universities, including Cornell and Michigan State.
The vast majority of the chemical is used outdoors for soil and produce fumigation, mostly in Florida and California. Only 5 percent of the 27,000 tons of methyl bromide used annually in the United States is sprayed indoors, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Although the exact dates and quantities of past sprayings weren’t available because of an ongoing investigation by the agriculture department, Walter said the milling company has been fumigated three or four times per year since it bought the “A” mill from Pillsbury.
Walter was brought in by attorneys to investigate the alleged poisoning and the scene in which it took place. Because of his extensive use of the chemical, Walter said he is occasionally called upon to investigate situations and testify in court on the effects and usage of methyl bromide.
“I’m not going to say that I dispute the conclusion of the autopsy, but we’re going to keep investigating,” Walter said.
Whatever the outcomes of the investigation and civil suit, the company has decided to use a less toxic, organic compound called pyrethrin in the future, Campbell told the local residents at the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association meeting Tuesday.
The EPA is also conducting an investigation into Archer Daniels Midland’s handling of the chemical.
Schommer said the natural fumigant is akin to the chemical people use to get rid of hornet’s nests on their houses.
But the milling company won’t have the option to use methyl bromide in a few years, regardless of how city officials regulate it. Methyl bromide is being phased out of production and importation by the EPA.
The federal agency has set a target date of Jan. 1, 2001 as the last date when the chemical can be made or brought into the United States.
A team of international scientists concluded in 1995 that methyl bromide is 50 times more effective at destroying ozone than the chlorofluorocarbons in aerosol sprays, according to a Web site maintained by the environmental agency. Therefore, the chemical is being phased out for violation of the Clean Air Act of 1990.
Methyl bromide has already been phased out in the Netherlands, and Denmark and Sweden are expected to follow suit.
An uncertain future
Despite the cancellation of the company’s regularly scheduled fumigation, city inspector Anderson said the company isn’t being as cooperative with the surrounding Southeast community as it could be.
“I’m frankly deeply disappointed in the stance ADM has taken,” Anderson said. “I think it reflects poorly on multi-national corporations in general.”
Ward 5 Minneapolis Assistant Billy Binder, who worked with Campbell in dealing with the milling company, said he didn’t want to intrude upon private business matters. But he said those matters became public concerns when they affected the community surrounding the mill.
“Our concern here was that ADM not use any substance that could cause any more grievous harm than has already been done,” he said.
Whatever the milling company decides to do in the future, one certainty is that the issue isn’t likely to go away any time soon. James Wicka, the attorney representing Mary Fernandez in her civil suit, said he represents other individuals that live or work in the area who are considering pressing charges against the company as well.
Campbell said she will continue to press the mill for better accountability and will continue to try to keep the community informed.
“Maybe it isn’t dangerous,” Campbell said, “but the point is that people have a feeling about this.”