Methyl bromide is a direc t descend ant of leaded gasoline — a product whic h used t o be produced by th e Ethyl Corporation (which spun off its methyl bromide production into Albemarl e in 1994) an d is still made by a subsidiary of Great Lakes Chemical .
In th e early 1920s, scientists perfected a gasoline additive , tetraethy l lead (TEL) , tha t boosted octane content. In 1922, General Motors an d DuPont forme d a 50-50 join t ventur e wit h Standard Oil (today Exxon) t o produce an d market th e chemical . Th e new company wa s th e Ethyl Corporation .
Other scientists , however, soo n raised concerns tha t automobiles running on leaded gasoline wer e "a seriou s menace t o th e public health" . In 1924, it wa s reported tha t 80 per cent of worker s wh o produced tetraethy l lead had either been killed or wer e suffering acute poisoning . A t one refinery, employees suffered such sever e nerve damage an d extensive hallucinations tha t it wa s dubbed th e "House of Butterflies". Ethyl's product had t o be withdrawn fro m th e market, an d th e Surgeon General set up a panel of scientists t o study th e problem .
Ethyl, supported by its owners, DuPont, GM and Exxon, fought back,
The Poisonous Past
contradicting a growing body of scientific evidence with a bold public relations and lobbying campaign. Th e company hired a professor of journal ism from Columbia University t o place favourable articles in newspapers. DuPont ran full-page ads touting th e product in Life magazine. Ethyl questioned the scientific basis of banning their product, asking "because some animals die, and some do not die in some experiments, shall w e give this thing up entirely?" GM's director of research told th e American Medical Association that:
"there is no danger of acquiring lead poisoning even throug h prolonged exposure t o exhaust gases of car s using Ethyl gas. " Th e campaign wa s successful . Th e Surgeon General' s panel concluded tha t "there are at present no goo d grounds fo r prohibiting th e use of ethyl gasoline". Th e panel calle d fo r specifi c furthe r studie s whic h wer e never conducted .
GM wen t on t o push unleaded gasoline off th e market by producing engines tha t ran only on leaded fuel . By 1940, 7 0 per cent of all US gasoline contained Ethyl's product.
Exit Leaded Fuel Th e disadvantage of tetraethy l lead is
tha t it leaves a corrosive by-product in th e engine . T o counte r this , Ethyl's scientist s cam e up wit h th e idea of addin g ethylene dibromide (EDB) t o th e gasoline .
Ethyl firs t produced EDB in 1934 by extracting bromine fro m seawater in a join t ventur e wit h Dow Chemical . Thi s process wa s replaced in 1969 by a join t ventur e between Ethyl (no longer owned by DuPont/GM) an d Great Lakes Chemical . Th e new process used concentrated brine extracte d fro m dee p below th e salt marshes of Arkansas . In th e 1960s an d 1970s, EDB wa s Great Lakes Chemicals ' main product. Today , both Great Lakes an d Ethyl/Albemarle operate major chemical factorie s in Arkansa s producing bromine fro m salt brine .
Whe n burned , th e EDB in leaded gasoline produces methyl bromide . Th e Worl d Meteorological Organization has determined tha t th e continuin g exhaust fro m automobiles using leaded gasoline is on e of th e "three potentially major sources of atmospheric methyl bromide".
In 1972, th e sam e yea r it banned DDT, th e US government ordere d th e phase ou t of leaded gasolin e in th e United States . In response, Ethyl an d Great Lakes followe d a three-trac k strategy, mirrored toda y in thei r figh t against th e phase ou t of methyl
erable evidence of toxic impacts on communities and workers across the state, and a variety of organizing efforts over the years. The Act drew up a list of 200 chemicals considered to be potentially carcinogenic or to cause birth defects. Methyl bromide, added to the list in 1986, was near the top. The Act required manufacturers of listed chemicals to submit toxicological studies to the Department of Pesticide Regulation by 1991; the Department would then review the studies and cancel the use of those pesticides that it determined presented "significant adverse health effects".17
The methyl bromide studies were to be conducted by Great Lakes Chemical. At the time of the 1991 deadline, five of the required studies were either incomplete or found to have "major deficiencies" by Department scientists.18 Great Lakes asked for a five-year extension on the grounds of "legitimate scientific disputes" about the impacts of methyl bromide. Its request was granted.19 As the new deadline of March 1996 loomed, it became clear that three of the toxicology studies mandated ten years before were still not complete. The toxicology studies that were completed found that methyl bromide causes birth defects in rabbits and decreases fertility and fetal birth weights in rats. 2 0
Ironically, part of the problem in conducting the tests is that, because methyl bromide is so toxic, it is extremely difficult to conduct any studies on the chemical's long-term impacts,
including its effects on animals' reproductive systems. In one attempt to study the chronic effects of methyl bromide on dogs, scientists could not feed the animals a dose that could be detected without it triggering immediate illness, including seizures that caused the dogs to ram their heads and bodies against the sides of their cages and die within 24 hours.21
Paying Pete for Permission to Poison
In early 1996, just before the second deadline for the toxicology studies, the governor of California, Pete Wilson, called a special session of the California legislature, a manoeuvre usually reserved for earthquakes and floods. Any ban or phase-out of methyl bromide was delayed until the end of 1997 so that "more studies" could be conducted. Wilson himself argued that "if we are to remain a competitive economic force .. . we must act now to prevent the suspended use of methyl bromide."22
The Los Angeles Times has pointed out that most of Wilson's campaign contributions have come "from major corporations and interest groups with a stake in legislation and regulations decided in [California's state capital] Sacramento". Between 1993 and 1995, Wilson received more than $500,000 from corporations with strong vested interests in perpetuating the use of methyl bromide.23
The Ecologist, Vol. 27, No. 3 , May/June 1997