Four years...and counting

by Emily Wilson
Share This:

The impending phase-out of methyl bromide, a highly effective and cheap fumigant, has been looming over the world's milling industry since the early 1990s, when methyl bromide was declared an ozone-depleting substance.

The issue is again at the forefront. In 2001, the world's production of methyl bromide is being cut by 50%. The slash in production is a necessary step in complying with the phase-out plan and total ban of methyl bromide in all developed countries by January 1, 2005, as outlined in the Montreal Protocol international treaty.

Because a natural source of bromine must be available to produce methyl bromide, the fumigant is manufactured only in three parts of the world: the Dead Sea region east of Israel, China and the United States.

The world's total supply of methyl bromide is unknown, as production figures are reported confidentially by manufacturers in the Dead Sea region to the United Nations Environment Program. In the U.S., however, about 28 million pounds of methyl bromide is currently available, including imports and domestic production, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's methyl bromide office — half of the 1991 baseline cap of 56 million pounds.

Many millers and fumigators who are still using methyl bromide wonder if the supply for 2001 will even last to the end of the year.

"We are likely to simply run out by early October," said David Mueller, president of Fumigation Service and Supply, Westfield, Indiana, U.S. "In the U.S., traditional Thanksgiving mill fumigations with methyl bromide might not be an option. There's only so much to go around."

The decrease in production will boost the cost of this once inexpensive fumigant. In the early 1990s, methyl bromide was a breezy U.S.$1 per pound, Mueller said. Last summer, prices hovered around U.S.$3/lb before climbing to the current U.S.$7/lb. Mueller said the cost of methyl bromide is projected to reach U.S.$15 per pound within the next three years.

Although some millers — especially in the U.S. — have resisted the ban on methyl bromide, observers believe basic supply-and-demand economics will drive the phase-out, possibly ahead of the 2005 ban. And as the cost of methyl bromide increases, so does the need to find new, more cost-effective alternatives.

RESISTANCE IN U.S. Methyl bromide has been used since the early 1930s for commodity and structural fumigations. In the late 1950s, the U.S. began to use methyl bromide for soil fumigations and the practice soon spread internationally. In the U.S. today, about 80% of total methyl bromide usage is for soil fumigation, with the remaining 5% in quarantine and preshipment uses and 15% in commodity and structural fumigation. Methyl bromide used in flour mills accounts for approximately one-third of that 15%.

"The majority of U.S. flour millers are still using methyl bromide," Mueller said. He expects that number to decrease throughout the year because of the production cuts. "Many in the U.S. have not committed to the phase-out," he said. "They are still trying to resist and postpone it."

Jim Bair, vice-president of the North American Millers Association, Washington, D.C., has lobbied against the methyl bromide ban.

"NAMA has opposed the ban on methyl bromide for several reasons," Bair said. "Number one, the assumptions that policy makers have made on an international level have been based on the belief that there were alternatives, but there are not. That is a faulty assumption because there is no replacement for methyl bromide."

He added, "The main point is that even if methyl bromide is as harmful to the environment as is being said, the ban will not help the environment because developing countries will continue using it until 2015. That is faulty policy making. If methyl bromide was banned everywhere on the same date, that would be a different debate. If we are going to ban a substance, we need to have confidence the environmental goal will be achieved."

Bair argues that the extra expense of the phase-out will give agricultural competitors in developing countries an advantage without a corresponding environmental gain.

Under the Montreal Protocol, developing countries will have consumption frozen in 2002 at the average 1995-98 levels. Methyl bromide usage levels from 1995 through 1998 in developing countries totaled about 20% of world use, said Bill Thomas, director of the EPA's methyl bromide program.

According to 1996 global methyl bromide usage statistics, North America consumed 38% of the total methyl bromide supply, followed by the European Union, 28%, and the Asia and Pacific region, 17%. China is not part of the Montreal Protocol.

The European Commission in 1998 formally outlined an accelerated phase-out of methyl bromide and other ozone-depleting substances. However, it is difficult to measure the phase-out on a country-by-country level, Thomas said.

Mueller also noted that the Montreal Protocol established a collective fund from developed countries to be used to support developing countries' transition expenses. This money helps to serve as an additional motivator for developing countries, he said.

NAMA lobbied successfully in 1998 to amend the U.S. Clean Air Act, which would have banned methyl bromide in 2001, to coincide with the Montreal Protocol phase-out plan.

"That at least gave us some extra years," Bair said. "Whether a nearly split Congress will be agreeable to further changes, we'll find out. We will continue to push legislative solutions in Congress to further delay the ban or, if possible, exempt the [milling] industry from the ban. The U.S. has to act in its own best interest."

Still, Bair admits that he doesn't think methyl bromide will be manufactured in the U.S. past 2003. In the meantime, millers have been acting prudently in finding alternatives, he said.

"A prudent manager will look at every opportunity now," Bair said. "We will have to do a lot of experimentation. We just don't think that we'll have enough time."

ALTERNATIVES EMERGING. Finding alternatives to methyl bromide has been the challenge for almost a decade, since no single product could replace methyl bromide in all its applications. But viable and even cost-competitive alternatives are now emerging, including phosphine, carbon dioxide, diatomaceous earth, even heat and cold (see box on page 32).

Even though its corrosive effects prevent it from becoming a methyl bromide panacea, phosphine has been a critical fumigant for the milling and grain handling industries for decades because of its cost, availability and effectiveness.

In the U.S., an attempt by the EPA in the latter part of 1998 to place more stringent restrictions on phosphine use prompted many industry associations to rally together in protest. Of the 15 EPA recommendations, the grain and milling industries were mostly concerned with proposals that would prohibit use of phosphine within 500 feet of a residence, require 24-hour notification for residents within 750 feet of a fumigation and reduce the permissible level of exposure from 0.3 parts per million to 0.03 ppm, a tenfold decrease. The enforcement of these three proposals would effectively ban phosphine use, industry associations argued.

By October 2000, because of industry pressure, the EPA had dropped each of these proposed restrictions on phosphine.

In another important development for phosphine usage in the U.S., the EPA in August 2000 granted full food registration for a cylinderized phosphine and carbon dioxide-based fumigant, Eco2Fume, which is being used in many other parts of the world (see story on page 33). Cytec Industries, Inc., West Paterson, New Jersey, is marketing Eco2Fume in the U.S.

Midland Fumigant, Inc., based in Leavenworth, Kansas, U.S., also is testing a new phosphine gas generator, an enclosed system that will produce phosphine gas on site and dispense a mixture of approximately 50% phosphine and 50% carbon dioxide.

"Our recent tests were on tarp-bagged commodities," said Chuck Estes, general manager, noting that the generator produced a 24-hour kill.

The phosphine gas generator will be used mainly for quarantine work and some grain fumigations, Estes said. He expects the patent-pending generator to be approved before the end of the year.

Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S., is working on the registration of its product, ProFume, a sulfuryl fluoride fumigant for food applications that is highly effective against postharvest insects.

"We've been collaborating with government and university researchers, industry consultants, fumigators and members of the food industry both in the U.S. and Europe to develop ProFume gas fumigant for control of stored product pests in food storage, processing, milling and warehousing," said Janet Rowley, product development manager at Dow AgroSciences. Dow has been conducting field trial fumigations for wheat and rice mills at multiple locations in the U.S., Germany and the U.K.

Research on other methyl bromide alternatives is ongoing in Germany, Argentina and many other countries, said John Mueller of Fumigation Service and Supply (FSS). Thomas of the EPA said Australia and Canada are also working on promising alternatives, but they are still in the experimental stage.

Internationally, various organizations also have launched research campaigns, newsletters and conferences to address the need for methyl bromide alternatives. In the U.S., Fumigation Service and Supply has sponsored several workshops on methyl bromide alternatives and will co-sponsor an international conference on fumigants and pheromones March 20-22 in Greece to discuss methyl bromide alternatives.

PLAN AHEAD. With the mandated decrease in methyl bromide production this year, there is no better time to begin looking at alternatives, said David Mueller. Begin by setting a goal of only doing one methyl bromide fumigation per year, instead of three, he suggested.

Several millers at a fumigation workshop sponsored by Fumigation Service and Supply last November expressed interest in beginning their search for methyl bromide alternatives. Some were looking into cylinderized phosphine, others heat or cold treatments. Above all, safety, shutdown time and cost were the dominating issues for mills.

Mueller began researching alternatives in 1992, after observing a scientific presentation about the effects of methyl bromide on the ozone layer. He was recognized by the EPA in 1995 and 1997 for his efforts in researching methyl bromide alternatives, and works with millers in both developed and developing countries to meet international methyl bromide standards.

"Integrated pest management and top-notch sanitation is the key," Mueller said. "Eventually, the goal should be to not need any fumigations. To achieve that, it is critical to get better kills on incoming ingredients. Instead of a 90%- plus kill rate, it needs to be a 100% kill."

This is where facilities can utilize a combination of methyl bromide alternatives to help reach a higher kill rate, he explained.

A pest management philosophy needs to extend to every level of management to be effective, Mueller said.

"In the long-term, facility planning and equipment purchase decisions need to be made around pest management," he said. "For example, you could buy equipment that doesn't have places for product build-up."

The phase out has some facilities considering pest control without chemicals. Ron Grinham, technical consultant for R.J. Grinham Worldwide Services, Ojai, California, U.S., has specialized in providing heat treatments for mills, food production facilities, warehouses and older buildings around the world for the past 25 years.

He said the methyl bromide phase out is definitely increasing the interest in heat treatments. "Companies are finding it's safer because there's no bromine levels left over," Grinham said. "Europe, especially Germany, will not accept any bromine levels."

When planning a customer's first heat treatment, Grinham Worldwide implements its own pest program. "It's a rethink of a facility's policy. It's a shakeup," he said. "We consider the use of pheromones, identify the pest problems accurately and design a treatment program around infested areas."

Whatever the chosen alternative, it is critical to start experimenting now.

"There will be some learning time and some trial and error involved," Mueller explained. "When they started doing methyl bromide fumigations in the 1930s, they didn't get it right at first. It takes practice and it can be hard to find a pest control solution customized to a specific facility. For instance, it may take a combination of fumigation techniques rather than just one. The key is to start now."