Bynum Winery reports poisoning Owners, winemaker fall ill, blame methyl bromide use at neighboring vineyard

Bynum Winery reports poisoning Owners, winemaker fall ill, blame methyl bromide use at neighboring vineyard


Santa Rosa, California, Sept. 17 - Agricultural officials are investigating what could be Sonoma County's most serious methyl bromide poisoning in 30 years, an apparent accident that caused four people, including the owners and winemaker at Healdsburg's Davis Bynum Winery, to become violently ill and require emergency treatment.

 The incident occurred Wednesday when methyl bromide, a highly toxic fumigant used to rid soil of disease and pests, is suspected of drifting from a vineyard site on Westside Road to neighboring Davis Bynum Winery.

Hampton Bynum, vice president of the family-owned winery, his wife, Ngamnit Bynum, winemaker David Georges and family friend Preeapron Lindsay said they were overcome after being outside at the time of the fumigation.

 All suffered dizziness, shortness of breath, fuzzy vision and drowsiness. Lindsay received an injection to stop her from vomiting continuously. All four spent most of Wednesday being treated at Healdsburg General Hospital and then returned home to recuperate.

 "It was a horrible experience," Hampton Bynum, son of winery founder Davis Bynum, said Monday. "It's very alarming when you realize a chemical like that can penetrate and disable you. It's taken five days for me to feel that I'm back on track."

 Confirmation of the cause will not come until an investigation is concluded by the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner's Office.

 Williams-Selyem Winery of Healdsburg owns the land that was being fumigated in preparation for planting. Lloyd Vineyard Management of Geyserville is developing the vineyard for Williams-Selyem and had contracted the methyl bromide fumigation to Tri-Cal Inc., a Hollister-based company that specializes in soil fumigation.

 "All the conditions were ideal for fumigation. All safety regulations were followed," Dave Esrock of Tri-Cal said Monday.

 Esrock said there was no wind and that thorough testing indicated weather conditions were right.

 Chris Boland, viticulturist at Lloyd Vineyard Management, said it's hard to understand how four people at Bynum Winery could be affected when the four people performing the fumigation did not get sick.

 Methyl bromide, a colorless, odorless gas, is pumped into the ground, which is covered with plastic to the keep the chemical escaping from the air.

 Georges, 37, said he's worried about long-term health problems from exposure to the chemical. He said he's having toxicological tests on his kidneys and liver to determine whether they've been damaged.

 "I feel like I've been poisoned and it could have been avoided," he said. Most grape growers have abandoned methyl bromide because of potential dangers to the environment, and Georges said there's no reason to use it.

 County Agricultural Commissioner John Westoby, whose office issues permits for pesticide applications, said the use of methyl bromide has declined dramatically over the past five years.

 Westoby said that in 1996, county growers applied 428,000 pounds of methyl bromide on 1,140 acres. In 2000, the most recent year for available state figures, use of methyl bromide had dropped to 132,000 pounds on 380 acres.

 Methyl bromide is legal to use until 2005. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is phasing out methyl bromide because it is a known ozone-depleting substance.

 Westoby, who is overseeing the investigation, said that in his 30 years with the commissioner's office he can't recall a methyl bromide poisoning case that involved so many people claiming illnesses.

 "We are waiting to see what information we get from the doctors' reports," he said.

 The state Department of Pesticide Regulation, a division of the state Environmental Protection Agency, was immediately informed of the incident. Glenn Brank, a department spokesman, said the case has been classified a "priority investigation," with all state resources available to help Westoby in the inquiry.

 By num said he and the others were doing fine Monday but, like Georges, he's worried about health problems in the future. Bynum farms his vineyards organically, using no chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers on his land.

 By num believes the fumigant was carried by the wind to his property. He said he will write a letter to the Department of Pesticide Regulation asking for better controls on methyl bromide.

 "I would like to see this stuff outlawed immediately," he said.

 Bob Cabral, winemaker and general manager at Williams-Selyem, said he hopes the investigation will shed some light on what happened.

 "We don't know of any violations, and we have to assume everything went according to regulations because Tri-Cal is a reputable company," he said.

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