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Last week, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors urged California Gov. Jerry Brown to reconsider the state’s approval of the carcinogenic fumigant methyl iodide. Monterey County, one of the largest agricultural counties in California, joins Santa Cruz County in mounting pressure to re-examine the controversial decision to approve the toxic chemical as a replacement to the ozone-depleting methyl bromide. This news comes at the heels of the announcement earlier this month that Gov. Brown appointed Brian Leahy, a former organic farmer and the former assistant director at the California Department of Conservation, to head the state Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR).
According to The Californian, agricultural interests present asked County Supervisors to take no action. However, with dozens of local farm workers in attendance pleading their case, the board passed the resolution on a 4-1 recommending that Gov. Brown take another look at the fumigant.
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.
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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (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.”
Several environmental groups sued the State of California last year 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 DPR over the risk assessment of methyl iodide and its subsequent approval.
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. During a hearing on Jan. 13, a California Superior Court Judge raised concerns about whether CDPR complied with its legal obligation to consider alternative options before approving the use.
Methyl iodide 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. 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. 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.
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. A journal article from 2010 shows that organic farms produce more flavorful and nutritious strawberries while leaving the soil healthier and more biologically diverse than conventional strawberry farms. For more information on organic versus conventional agricultural practices, see Beyond Pesticides’ guide, Organic Food: Eating with a Conscience as well as our organic program page. In addition to the personal health risks posed by pesticide residues, Beyond Pesticides urges consumers to consider the impacts on the environment, farmworker and farm families’ health when making food choices.
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On Jan. 12, California’s Alameda County Superior Court heard arguments regarding the state’s approval in December 2010 of methyl iodide—a cancer-causing pesticide fumigant approved for use on the state’s strawberry fields. Methyl iodide was approved despite independent scientific evidence about the significant health risks it poses to children, rural communities and farmworkers. Judge Frank Roesch is anticipated to file an opinion within the next few months.
“Nobody disputes that methyl iodide is a potent poison,” said Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie. “By approving the cancer-causing pesticide, California’s pesticide regulators ignored the science and broke important laws designed to protect public health. The state’s duty is to protect the public health and groundwater, not defend corporate profits.”
Documents in the case show that top scientists in the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) warned their superiors of the dangers of methyl iodide and strongly criticized the “acceptable” levels of exposure for farmworkers and the public set by the political appointees running the department. Dozens of independent scientists, including six Nobel Laureates in chemistry, have publicly opposed the use of methyl iodide since 2007.
"The outcome of the case is important for re-establishing the integrity of science-based decision-making by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and the California Environmental Protection Agency,” said Kathy Collins, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. “Their processes must protect the health of people living and working in California by rigorously limiting the use of methyl iodide, even if safe standards for use of the chemical are not preferred by external corporate interests."
The lawsuit challenging approval of methyl iodide was filed in December 2010 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 claims state approval of methyl iodide violates the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Birth Defects Prevention Act, and the Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act. The defendants in the case are the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and Arysta Lifescience, manufacturer of methyl iodide.
The judge did give some initial indications from bench about his opinions. “Did you consider not approving methyl iodide?...I don’t see it. Absent that, I don’t see how you can prevail in the lawsuit,” said Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch. He also gave defendants until Jan. 20 to make a legal argument that DPR was not required to consider alternatives to methyl iodide under the California Environmental Quality Act.
“The science is clear that cancer-causing methyl iodide shouldn’t be used near farmworkers, rural communities and children,” said Paul Towers, spokesperson for Pesticide Action Network, the lead plaintiff in the case. “This case highlights the breakdown in government decision-making at the hands of corporate influence—a dangerous precedent that must be rectified.”
“The exposure levels that California approved as “safe” for workers are 120 times higher than the levels that government scientists say protect against miscarriages and 56 times higher than the levels they say protect against thyroid cancer,” stated Jora Trang, managing attorney of Worksafe, a plaintiff in the case. “Children are more vulnerable to pesticides than adults, so methyl iodide poses a particular risk to teenage farmworkers and young rural residents. The approval of methyl iodide has made lab rats out of our rural children. It is unconscionable.”
Only six applications of methyl iodide—including two paid for by the manufacturer, Arysta LifeScience—have taken place in California since the Department of Pesticide Regulation approved it last December. Local governments, and state elected officials, have taken a stand against the chemical. Santa Cruz County recently passed a resolution against the chemical, while Monterey County is considering similar measures. Dozens of state legislators have authored letters in opposition to the chemical. As a result, Gov. Jerry Brown pledged to “take a fresh look” at the issue last March.
“Instead of protecting profits for polluters like Arysta, Gov. Brown should focus on promoting safe alternatives to methyl iodide and other pesticides,” said Tracey Brieger, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform. “Ensuring a strong agricultural economy in California over the long term requires new thinking and support for innovative growers, not reliance on outdated toxic technology.”
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