As summer comes to a close, strawberry season is beginning in Plant City. Most berry growers have just finished one of the early stages of the growing process: applying fumigants.
Since 2013, many growers have chosen to use Paladin, a fumigant that is produced by Arkema. The fumigant is based on dimethyl disulfide, instead of methyl bromide. Methyl bromide was used widely as an effective fumigant, until the EPA banned it in 2005 because it had been depleting the ozone layer and polluting the air. Although Paladin is said to be less toxic than other fumigants and is a naturally-occurring compound, some area residents have associated their illnesses with the fumigant since local growers began using it. Some are also put off my the smell, which has been described as similar to garlic or sulfur.
Still, there have been fewer complaints to Arkema and the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County this year.
The EPC has been working with the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services regarding the use and effects of Paladin. The EPC responds to resident complaints and keeps track of the number of residents who complain, as well as the number of households.
This year, the EPC has received 16 complaints from 10 households. In 2013, the first year that the fumigant was used, 24 complaints were received from 23 households.
“We’re empathetic and following up on everything we get,” Jerry Campbell said. Campbell is the Air Division Director at the EPC.
Rob Welker, a market development manager for Paladin said he has received fewer complaints from residents this year than in previous years.
He said it could be because of the totally impermeable film growers are using to lock in the smell. Growers began using the film in 2014.
“Every year we learn a little bit more,” Welker said. “This year was just a pretty good year for applications.”
The summer’s heavy rain storms have also helped with soil moisture, and the fumigant application process is monitored. Any fumigant that comes off of the seals is measured.
Once applied, Paladin immediately starts to break down in the soil.
“We’re always improving our process,” Welker said.
But Dover resident Mary Zentkovich said Paladin is still making her sick.
Since 2013, she has been notifying agencies, doctors and growers of health issues that she believes are linked to Paladin.
This year, Zentkovich and her daughter relocated for a month while Paladin was being applied to fields near their home.
When she came back, she said she had a sore throat within one week. Her 17-year-old daughter is facing health problems as well, such as headaches and nosebleeds.
Zentkovich works from home and said that she is subjected to the odor constantly.
“It is so intense still at this point and time,” Zentkovich said.
But Zentkovich said that her problems with Paladin go beyond the unpleasant odor.
“It’s not just the smell,” she said. “It’s what the chemical does to a person’s body. It’s very intense.”
Paladin and can be found in common foods, including beer, cheese and garlic, Welker said. He doesn’t think there is a link between illnesses and Paladin.
“It’s the exact same chemical,” Welker said. “It’s the exact same compound. I’m just not convinced that their illnesses are at any way linked to Paladin.”
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Since the fumigant first began being used in 2013, three improvements have been made in the application process:
The films were changed to totally impermeable films in 2014.
A strong field presence was established, so that the use of Paladin was monitored in the application process.
A spray system was set up that allows the odor to be oxidized.
According to Jerry Campbell, of the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County, the number of residents and the number of households who have complained about Paladin have decreased each year since 2013.
2013: 24 complaints from 23 households
2014: 23 complaints from 13 households
2015 (to date): 16 complaints from 10 households