(Beyond Pesticides, September 7, 2011) California’s approval of the dangerous and controversial agricultural chemical, methyl iodide, suffered serious questions with the release of new documents showing the fumigant’s registration process was flawed. The documents, which were made public as part of a lawsuit challenging the state’s approval of the chemical, show the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) cut and pasted calculations from different risk assessments in order to come up with a less stringent set of restrictions on the chemical’s use.
Earlier this year, several environmental groups sued the State of California for approving the agricultural use of methyl iodide. Methyl iodide is known to cause miscarriages, thyroid dysfunction, and cancer, and is applied to crops like strawberries and peppers. It was approved by California state pesticide regulators in December as an alternative to methyl bromide, an ozone-depleting chemical being phased out under international treaty. Environmental advocacy groups and other opponents of methyl iodide use in the state have released documents detailing dissension in the ranks of DPR over the risk assessment of methyl iodide and its subsequent approval. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group, sued DPR in an attempt to reverse the state’s approval of the chemical. The ongoing court case helped reveal documents showing DPR manipulated data and that department scientists were worried risk managers minimized health dangers and didn’t take strong enough steps to mitigate the threats. One of the released documents, a memo from one disapproving DPR scientist, chastised the agency for its cut-and-paste approach to calculations determining how big buffer zones should be to protect public health.
The primary state toxicologist’s memo called management’s approach a “mix and match,” and wrote that he was “puzzled by some of the numbers cited in the draft regulation on methyl iodide for inhalation exposure. They appear to have been extracted from different methyl iodide risk assessment methodologies that are not interchangeable.” The memo went on the state, “It is not scientifically credible to select a value or assumption from one (risk assessment calculation) and combine it with a value or assumption from another.”
DPR management’s mixing and matching was used to show that fields sprayed with methyl iodide would require smaller buffer zones. The highest level of protection scientists investigated would have required buffer zones of several hundred feet to several miles around affected fields. DPR acknowledged in the new documents that this level of protection “was recommended by scientists” but still chose to reduce the buffer zones, saying that such requirements would be “excessive” and cause hardship on methyl iodide manufacturer, Arysta, “due to its economic viability.” Two lead DPR scientists who warned of methyl iodide’s risks have since left.
In addition to reducing buffer zones, California’s DPR chose to outright ignore warnings from its own scientists regarding methyl iodide’s effects on pregnant women, children, and infants. The risk assessment report notes several times that the department had not tested methyl iodide for neurological damage to fetuses. DPR scientists recommended that “an additional ‘safety factor’ of 10 is needed to take the post-natal neurotoxic effects into consideration..” In the end, DPR scientists recommended that California set its limit for methyl iodide at 2 parts-per-million in order to reduce chances of miscarriage. However, EPA and Arysta chose to allow 10 parts-per-million, much more than the recommended level.
Environmental and health activists, including Beyond Pesticides, have long questioned California’s rationale for approving methyl iodide over the warnings of DPR’s own scientists. Although industry influence was suspected in the decision, there was no proof until these documents came to light, showing that DPR managers changed recommended exposure levels to suit the preferences of methyl iodide’s manufacturer, Arysta LifeScience.
Just last week, EPA entered into an agreement with DPR to resolve a civil rights complaint from 1999 which alleged that the department’s renewal of methyl bromide in 1999 discriminated against Latino school children whose schools are located near agriculture fields. The complaint alleged that CDPR’s annual renewal of the registration of methyl bromide in 1999 discriminated against Latino school children based on the health impacts of this pesticide. As a result of the settlement, DPR has agreed to install additional monitors for methyl bromide near those schools and conduct outreach to the Latino community around pesticide use and safety. Methyl iodide will pose just as great a risk to children, farmers and residents alike.
Anti-methyl iodide activists, who recently flash-mobbed California Gov. Jerry Brown’s Facebook and Twitter accounts in addition to staging protests at the state Capitol, hope the EPA-DPR settlement on methyl bromide will push Gov. Brown to reconsider methyl iodide’s approval. While there are no signs that will happen, with revelations like this, the Earthjustice case against methyl iodide’s rushed approval appear to grow ever stronger. Due to the dangers of methyl iodide, both Washington state and New York have refused to allow its use, even though the EPA has approved it.
Like other synthetic pesticides not exempted on the “National List of Allowed Synthetic Substances,” methyl iodide is prohibited in organic production under the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). However, some “organic” strawberry growers are buying strawberry starts, which have been previously grown in soil treated with methyl iodide prior to being planted at the organic strawberry farm. Beyond Pesticides believes that a new guidance document under consideration by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP) will correct this problem.
Under OFPA, organic growers must plant seedlings that are certified organic unless they are not “commercially available.” Otherwise, they may plant annual seedlings that are not certified organic, but are grown without substances that are prohibited in organic production. In the case of perennials, they must be grown for a full year before they may be sold as organic. Strawberries are technically perennials, but are planted each season and treated as annuals by most growers. Regardless of whether strawberries grown as annuals are treated as annual planting stock or perennial stock, they must be held subject to commercial availability standards, and produced without prohibited substances. Advocates must apply pressure to create incentives to ensure the commercial availability of organic inputs and ensure the integrity of the organic label. Read Beyond Pesticides’ comments to NOP on its Draft Guidance on Seeds, Annual Seedlings, and Planting Stock in Organic Crop Production and learn more about organic integrity on our organic food program page.