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Sunday, Jul 22, 2018
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Odor in downtown Tampa might stay awhile

TAMPA — It stunk - bad - in downtown Tampa on Thursday.

Ditto for Brandon and Plant City and much of Tampa, from 50th Street and Interstate 4 to Hyde Park’s South Howard Avenue, causing commuters to wrinkle and pinch their noses on their walks into office buildings.

The good news: The noxious odor is from a new pesticide being used by strawberry farmers and is not a safety risk, according to agricultural officials.

The bad news: The farmers aren’t finished spraying and the winds aren’t expected to change much, meaning the smell could be around awhile.

The aroma was particularly noticeable early Thursday, sparking rumors of dangerous gas leaks and choking fumes from the Port of Tampa. Soon, though, authorities confirmed the noxious odor was from a pesticide being pumped into the soils of strawberry fields in eastern Hillsborough County.

This is the first year most of the growers are widely using the pesticide Paladin, which contains dimethyl disulfate, said Ted Campbell, director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Plant City.

“It’s actually very effective, but it really stinks,” Campbell said.

With light morning breezes wafting in from the east, the fumes reminded urbane city-goers they are not that far removed from rural crop growers.

The National Weather Service in Ruskin predicts winds over the next several days will come predominantly from the east and northeast, so the stench may be around for about a week.

If winds are from the north or south, few people will notice. Winds from the east, though, will bring the odor into downtown Tampa, Campbell said. “That’s the bottom line on that one.”

Soil fumigation must be finished three weeks before the strawberries are planted, which ideally is the first week in October. That means fumigation needs to be done by next week, Campbell said.

For years, growers used methyl bromide, but the compound’s effect on the ozone was called into question and the production of methyl bromide was discontinued by 2005. That left strawberry farmers looking for alternatives while they used up their last stockpiles of the stuff.

This year, most have settled on Paladin, which is safer for the aquifer and dissipates in the soil quicker, Campbell said.

“It’s getting wider usage this year,” he said, “so, there is more stink this year.”

The application basically sterilizes the soil, he said, killing off microscopic organisms, fungi and weeds that can be harmful to the tender young strawberry plants.

“It’s not harmful,” to people, Campbell said of the fumes. “It smells similar to the stuff they put in propane.”

Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Tom Forward said eight units responded Thursday to calls of gas smells around the city, including South Tampa. Firefighters used sniffing devices and found no harmful concentrations.

“Negative,” he said. “Nothing detectable.”

According to the United Phosphorus Inc., used to market Paladin in the United States, the pesticide “has a strong, objectionable odor which can be detected at concentrations significantly below the levels that can potentially cause harm. The odor is garlic-like and may be confused with the odor of a natural gas or propane leak.”

For some with respiratory sensitivities, contact with the compound, which emerged on the market two years ago, can result in nausea, headaches, drowsiness or dizziness, the United Phosphorous website said. It is a restricted-use pesticide and can be applied only by certified handlers.

No one was hospitalized or treated Thursday morning, Forward said.

Forward said the substance meets all environmental restrictions and applications methods are stringent. Because the application are so controlled, the EPA has deemed dimethyl disulfide as safe.

“We hadn’t really gotten any calls on it directly,” said Ryan Pedigo, with the public health preparedness unit of the Hillsborough County Health Department. “But we are aware of the fertilizer issue.”

He said county emergency responders went out Wednesday morning on several calls around Brandon and other locations east of Tampa answering calls from residents complaining of the odor.

No one was treated for respiratory illnesses related to the fumes, he said.

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The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has issued this information about dimethyl disulfide (DMDS):

* The EPA concluded that DMDS fumigant is not likely to get into food crops because the active ingredient is applied prior to planting and the level of DMDS breaks down by the time crops are planted.

* An EPA assessment concluded that DMDS will not contaminate ground water or surface water.

* DMDS has low toxicity when inhaled or when the skin is exposed to it. The primary health effect of DMDS is irritation of the nose and upper respiratory tract in shor-term exposures in some people. The EPA has concluded that people in areas near treated agricultural fields will not experience adverse health effects when DMDS products are used.

* DMDS has a sulfurous odor similar to that of garlic and decaying fish, resembling the additive in propane gas, so the odor often is mistaken for a gas leak.

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