(Beyond Pesticides, July 13, 2009) With the stroke of a pen, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger could bow to industry interests and force the California Department of Pesticide Regulation to register a new fumigant pesticide, methyl iodide. Highly toxic, and not approved for use in California, this chemical has been given a comprehensive review by the state’s own Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) and found to be one of the riskiest pesticides in existence. Scientists familiar with methyl iodide are asking Mr. Schwarzenegger to let science, rather than political pressure, guide this decision.
“Methyl iodide is so toxic that scientists working with it in the laboratory take extreme precautions when handling it, using a ventilation hood, gloves, and special equipment for transferring it so it does not escape to the air,” notes Susan Kegley, Ph.D., a chemist and consulting scientist for Pesticide Action Network North America. “This degree of protection is not possible in an agricultural setting where the pesticide would be applied at rates of 175 pounds per acre in the open air. Buffer zones of 400 feet (a distance most growers would say is unworkable) for a 40-acre fumigation would still result in a dose of methyl iodide to neighbors that is 375 times higher than DPR believes is acceptable. For workers, the numbers are much worse, with exposures estimated at 3,000 times higher than DPR’s acceptable dose for some tasks.”
Methyl iodide would primarily be used on strawberries in California, affecting people in the Coastal parts of the state from San Diego and Ventura to Watsonville. Communities and farmworker advocates across the state are urging Governor Schwarzenegger to consider the serious potential impacts this chemical will have on their lives if it is permitted for use. According to Anne Katten of California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, “People who would suffer the highest exposure to methyl iodide are among the state’s least protected: farmworkers and their families, including especially vulnerable young children and pregnant and nursing women.”
According to unnamed sources, representatives from the pesticide manufacturers and agricultural industry have been meeting with the Governor’s office to demand faster registration of Midas, a fumigation product containing methyl iodide and chloropicrin, by the end of the summer. The same sources indicate that the Governor’s office has directed DPR to register methyl iodide by a certain date, apparently regardless of DPR’s toxicological assessment or the results of a scientific peer review.
DPR’s risk assessment is on track to be peer-reviewed by a Scientific Review Panel, comprised of highly respected university scientists. Industry interests (primarily the methyl iodide manufacturer, Arysta, and select grower organizations) are now pressuring the Governor to forego the scientific review and force DPR to allow the use of methyl iodide for California’s fall fumigation season. In 2007 the Bush administration bowed to similar pressures, doctoring the science used to assess the risks of methyl iodide, and allowing it to be registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“California produces eighty percent of the nation’s strawberries and we lead the nation in sustainable and organic agricultural practices. CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) has 127 certified organic strawberry producers who do not use harmful chemicals of this sort and are successful business operations,” states Peggy Miars, Executive Director of CCOF. “Registering methyl iodide would be a big step backwards, we need to hold the line here. It’s clear from the success of organic farming practices that a replacement chemical is not what is required, instead what is needed is a greater commitment to innovation and using alternative, more ecologically integrated pest and disease control methods.”
Highly toxic and with application rates of up to 175 pounds per acre, methyl iodide has been controversial from the time EPA announced its intent to register this chemical for legal use as a pesticide. In 2007, EPA fast-tracked the registration of methyl iodide (a Proposition 65 carcinogen) for use as a soil fumigant despite serious concerns raised by a group of over 50 eminent scientists, including five Nobel Laureates. These scientists sent a letter of concern to EPA explaining, “Because of methyl iodide’s high volatility and water solubility, broad use of this chemical in agriculture will guarantee substantial releases to air, surface waters and groundwater, and will result in exposures for many people. In addition to the potential for increased cancer incidence, EPA’s own evaluation of the chemical also indicates that methyl iodide causes thyroid toxicity, permanent neurological damage, and fetal losses in experimental animals.” The letter concludes, “It is astonishing that the Office of Pesticide Programs (of EPA) is working to legalize broadcast releases of one of the more toxic chemicals used in manufacturing into the environment.”
If registered as a soil fumigant, methyl iodide would be applied primarily in California’s strawberry fields, and as a gas it would drift away from the application site, and expose neighboring residents and farmworkers in nearby fields. Methyl iodide is a threat to air and water supplies and has been linked to very serious illnesses including cancer, miscarriages, thyroid toxicity, and neurological problems.
“Methyl iodide is even more toxic than what it is supposed to be replacing. More to the point, it is entirely unnecessary, as sustainable and organic farming systems are available now,” says Brett Melone of the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) in Salinas, California. “ALBA has trained hundreds of farmers to grow food — including strawberries — without chemicals in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. Most of the farmers ALBA works with are former farmworkers seeking a healthier work environment to grow food.”
TAKE ACTION: If you live in California, you can urge Governor Schwarzenegger to allow DPR’s evaluation process to continue as they are designed, for the protection of public health and scientific integrity. See the Pesticide Action Network of North America’s action alert for more the petition to sign on to. For more information and background on organic agriculture and alternatives to toxic pesticides like methyl iodide, visit Beyond Pesticides’ organic program page.