(Beyond Pesticides, January 6, 2011) On Monday, a coalition of farmworkers, community activists and environmental health organizations announced a lawsuit challenging the approval of the toxic fumigant methyl iodide for use on California’s strawberry fields, urging the new Governor Jerry Brown to reverse the decision. The groups also submitted comments from over 52,000 members of the public urging Gov. Brown to act quickly to prevent the use of methyl iodide in California’s fields.
The lawsuit was filed late last week by Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. on behalf of Pesticide Action Network North America, United Farm Workers of America, Californians for Pesticide Reform, Pesticide Watch Education Fund, Worksafe, Communities and Children Advocates Against Pesticide Poisoning and farmworkers Jose Hidalgo Ramon and Zeferino Estrada.
The suit challenges the state Department of Pesticide Regulation’s (DPR) December 20 approval of methyl iodide for use in California on the grounds that it violates the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Birth Defects Prevention Act, and the Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act that protects groundwater against pesticide pollution. In addition, the suit contends that DPR violated the law requiring involvement of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) in the development of farmworker safety regulations and made an unlawful finding of emergency with its request for Restricted Materials status for methyl iodide.
“The public has been shocked, wondering how methyl iodide could be approved under California law. The truth is that DPR played too fast and loose with their decision,” said Greg Loarie, Attorney with Earthjustice. “They exceeded their legal authority and have put the public and farmworkers at great risk of harm.”
In deciding to approve methyl iodide, DPR shunned the findings of top scientists””including the state’s own Scientific Review Committee””who have consistently said that the chemical is too dangerous to be used in agriculture. Upon hearing the decision, Dr. John Froines, chair of the Committee, told press, “I honestly think that this chemical will cause disease and illness. And so does everyone else on the committee.” Theodore Slotkin, another panel member and professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University, wrote, “It is my personal opinion that this decision will result in serious harm to California citizens, and most especially to children.”
Methyl iodide causes late term miscarriages, contaminates groundwater and is so reliably carcinogenic that it’s used to create cancer cells in laboratories. It is on California’s official list of known carcinogenic chemicals and has been linked to serious risks in reproductive and neurological health.
The pesticide poses the most direct risks to farmworkers and those in the surrounding communities because of the volume that would be applied to fields and its tendency to drift off site through the air. It is approved to be applied to California’s strawberry fields at rates up to 100 pounds per acre on much of the state’s 38,000 acres in strawberry production, totaling millions of pounds of use. Though methyl iodide will likely be used primarily on strawberries, it is also registered for use on tomatoes, peppers, nurseries and on soils prior to replanting orchards and vineyards.
“It’s farmworkers like me who become sick,” said plaintiff Jose Hidalgo. “As a strawberry picker, I have worked near many pesticide applications. First we smell the pesticides. Then our eyes burn, our noses run and our throats hurt. I’m against using methyl iodide because it’s already too dangerous in the fields, we don’t need new, even more dangerous, toxins.”
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 six Nobel Laureates in Chemistry. 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.”
Since then, the more protective registration processes in New York State and Washington State both rejected methyl iodide, and in August 2010, California Senator Dianne Feinstein asked the US EPA to review the pesticide’s registration nationally. The agency has said that it will open a public comment period on the pesticide’s approval due to the “complexity of the issues raised and the public interest in methyl iodide.”
“A lot of consumers think of organic produce in terms of how it affects their diet and their health,” said Michael Marsh, directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance Inc,to The Californian. “But the best reason to look for alternatives isn’t really to protect people further down the line; it is to protect the health of the workers and the people who live nearby.”
Organic agriculture does not allow the use toxic chemicals that have been shown to cause a myriad of chronic health effects, such as cancer, endocrine disruption and a series of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, a study released late last year showed that organic farms produced more flavorful and nutritious strawberries while leaving the soil healthier and more genetically diverse than conventional strawberry farms. Support organic farming and protect farmers, farmworkers, and their families and neighbors from toxic chemicals.
For more information on organic versus conventional agricultural practices, see Beyond Pesticides’ new guide, Organic Food: Eating with a Conscience, urging consumers to consider impacts on the environment, farmworker and farm families’ health —in addition to personal health impacts posed by pesticide residues— when making food choices.
Photo: LA Times