Four Americans are recovering after being exposed to a pesticide during a trip to the U.S. Virgin islands. The family — a husband and wife, and their two teenage sons — were renting a villa at a resort in St. John when they were exposed to a chemical believed to be methyl bromide which had been used as a pest control fumigant. The mother has been treated and released, but the father and sons remain hospitalized.
According to the EPA, methyl bromide “is a broad spectrum pesticide used in the control of pest insects, nematodes, weeds, pathogens, and rodents.” It is primarily used in agriculture, but occasionally used as a structural fumigant to kill insects and rodents. However, because of dangers posed to humans, the EPA has banned or severely restricted nearly all indoor uses of the chemical.
Methyl bromide is colorless and odorless. Human exposure can cause serious health problems, including central nervous system, respiratory system damage, and death. The family hospitalized in this recent incident all suffered seizures and/or were rendered unconscious as a consequence of being exposed.
Workers using methyl bromide on the job must adhere to a number of safety precautions, including wearing a full face shield or safety glasses at all times, and wearing a full-face supplied-air or SCBA respirator whenever the concentration of methyl bromide reaches or exceeds 5 ppm. Any indoor area exposed to methyl bromide must be thoroughly aerated and ventilated, and then tested to ensure that any remnants of the chemical are not present at harmful levels before humans are readmitted.
Since 1993, methyl bromide has been part of a global phase out — not because of the immediate dangers it poses to humans, but because it is known to deplete the earth’s ozone layer. Since 2005, any entity continuing to use it has had to obtain a critical use exemption.
Earlier this week, a spokesperson for the EPA confirmed it had launched a “comprehensive investigation” into possibly illegal use of methyl bromide in this instance in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The U.S. Department of Justice said it is also investigating.
The U.S. Virgin Islands are an insular area of the United States, and as such, fall under both EPA and OSHA jurisdiction. The U.S. Virgin Islands—along with Puerto Rico and twenty-five U.S. states—have an OSHA-approved State Plan for regulating safety standards and taking enforcement actions. They are also regulated by the EPA as part of Region 2, which also includes New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and eight Native America Tribal Nations. Citizens of the U.S. Virgin islands are extended U.S. citizenship by birth, pay U.S. federal payroll taxes, any may vote or run for office in any U.S. jurisdiction.