(Beyond Pesticides, March 23, 2012) In a victory for environmentalists and farmworkers, manufacturers of the controversial and highly toxic fumigant methyl iodide announced it will cease selling its products containing the chemical in the U.S. market earlier this week. Representatives from the Tokyo-based company, Arysta LifeScience say that the decision was made as a part of an internal review and based on its economic viability in the U.S.; however, the company will still continue to sell methyl iodide products in other countries.
“Today I’m really happy. It feels like someone finally listened to us about something really important.” Gabriela Rincon, told the Los Angeles Times. Ms. Rincon is the daughter of farmworkers who pick strawberries in the Salinas area in California.
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 need to be applied to fields and its tendency to drift off site through the air.
In 2007, EPA fast-tracked the registration of methyl iodide 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.”
In response to this decision, several environmental groups sued the State of California in an attempt to reverse the state’s approval of the chemical. Environmental advocacy groups and other opponents of methyl iodide use in the state have released documents detailing dissension in the ranks of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) over the risk assessment of methyl iodide and its subsequent approval.
The ongoing court case revealed documents showing CDPR 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 CDPR scientist, chastised the agency for its cut-and-paste approach to calculations determining how big buffer zones should be to protect public health. During a hearing on January 13, a California Superior Court Judge raised concerns about whether CDPR complied with its legal obligation to consider alternative options before approving the use.
“This way is more powerful than a court victory. It’s a concession. It’s them walking,” Greg Loarie, lead attorney in the lawsuit, told the LA Times in response to the company’s decision to pull its products containing methyl iodide off the market.
It was 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 was to be used primarily on strawberries, it was also registered for use on tomatoes, peppers, nurseries and on soils prior to replanting orchards and vineyards.
Though many in the industry worry that strawberry producers in countries where methyl iodide will still be sold will have an unfair advantage over U.S. strawberry growers, there is much evidence to the contrary. A 2010 study shows that organic farms produced more flavorful and nutritious strawberries while leaving the soil healthier and more genetically diverse than conventional strawberry farms.
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. Organic certification standards require crop farmers to establish a preventive pest management strategy based on crop rotation, variety selection, biological controls, and sanitation and fertility practices. Synthetic materials that are allowed in organic crop production must satisfy a rigorous review process to insure their necessity, efficacy and safety to humans and the environment throughout their production and utilization. This review process must be updated every five years for the material to remain in use.