By Robert Coleman
Every spring the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases our Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™. The guide can be used by anyone trying to avoid pesticides, but it's especially important for parents to limit their children's exposures to these toxic chemicals.
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On Feb. 21, more than 60,000 people urged the new Director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) on his first day on the job to take action on cancer-causing pesticide methyl iodide. Representatives of environmental, health and farmworker organizations as well as tens of thousands of individuals urged Director Brian Leahy to repair the image of the tarnished department, criticized for ignoring science and failing to protect public health, by reversing the Schwarzenegger administration’s controversial approval of the strawberry pesticide.
“Director Leahy must show his commitment to public health and scientific integrity by immediately suspending all uses of methyl iodide and reversing the approval of this cancer-causing fumigant,” said Susan Kegley, PhD, consulting scientist for Pesticide Action Network. “In addition, he should support long-term efforts to partner with farmers and sister state agencies, to help transition away from pesticide fumigants and invest in healthy, sustainable agriculture.”
Leahy, a former organic farmer and assistant firector of the Division of Land Resource Protection at the California Department of Conservation takes office after an eleven-month vacancy in the position of the state’s chief pesticide regulator. He comes to office more than one year after the approval of methyl iodide—in December 2010, DPR approved the use of methyl iodide, ignoring concerns voiced by both a panel of independent scientists and the agency’s staff scientists. One independent scientist has called it “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth,” citing research that methyl iodide causes cancer, late-term miscarriages and contaminates groundwater.
More than 200,000 scientists, farmers, farmworkers, environmentalists and other members of the public sent comments to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last May urging the federal agency to listen to the science and ban the pesticide nationally. Washington State used California’s research to reject methyl iodide, and federal regulators have suggested that they are waiting on California in order to determine their next steps.
“Farmworkers are on the frontlines of pesticide exposure,” said Maria Machua, spokesperson for United Farm Workers. “California’s steps have immediate and direct impacts on the health and safety of farmworkers and their families living in the state, and sets precedence for farmworkers living across the country.”
The petition signatures were gathered over the past two weeks, following news of Leahy’s appointment, by a coalition of scientist, farmworker and environmental organizations, including the United Farm Workers, Pesticide Action Network, Environmental Working Group, Food & Water Watch, Center for Environmental Health, Change.org, Pesticide Watch, Worksafe and the coalition Californians for Pesticide Reform.
“This is an opportunity for a new day at DPR. Previous directors have all too often caved to industry pressure and rubber-stamped pesticides instead of safeguarding health and promoting a vibrant agricultural system,” said Tracey Brieger, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform. “Sticking to the science and promoting safe alternatives will reduce pesticide use, protect children’s health and support climate-friendly agriculture. With strong leadership, Leahy can make DPR an engine of innovation, economic stability and improved safety.”
California leads the country in organic farming with more than 430,000 acres in production and average annual growth of 15 percent. In his new role, Director Leahy has a significant opportunity to work with growers and find opportunities to reduce pesticide use, promote organic production and strengthen California’s vibrant agricultural economy.
In the first days of the Brown administration, Californians for Pesticide Reform, a coalition of more than 185 health and environmental organizations, submitted, a platform for pesticide. Healthy Children & Green Jobs: A Platform for Pesticide Reform outlines priority recommendations for how the Brown administration and Leahy can protect health and ensure the success of agriculture in California, including taking action on methyl iodide.
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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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Consumers wishing to avoid chemical pesticide residues in food, water and on farms have a simple choice—organic products, the Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA) said Dec. 8. Repeated government samplings in North America and Europe have shown organic produce has much lower pesticides residues when compared to non-organic.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) pesticide residue testing results made public this week support the claim that choosing organic reduces consumers’ exposure to unwanted pesticides.
“We see that over 560 residues were found on non-organic apples, more than ten times the 52 found on organic apples. That would worry me if I weren't buying organic,” said Matthew Holmes, executive director of COTA.
Consumers can now be assured that the government is monitoring organic products—both imports and domestic—thanks to the new Organic Products Regulations published in 2009 and fully implemented in June 2011. This new rule in Canada makes organic products the most regulated and inspected in the country, building on top of all other food safety and regulatory requirements.
“From the types of chemicals we see in this data, it’s clear that this isn’t a case of a farmer abusing the system, but originates from the types of chemical used on non-organic products in post-harvest situations, such as warehousing and shipping,” Holmes said.
As CFIA integrates the new organic rules into its existing testing and inspection systems, it will be able to monitor these sorts of occurrences in the future and find out where they might be happening, to minimize this type of exposure for organic products in the future.
However, Holmes adds, “It's not too surprising that we’re seeing some trace amounts of chemical residues. We cannot overlook the fact that these chemicals from industrial agriculture are present in our water, air and soil—that's why organic agriculture is offering consumers another choice—one that does not contribute to this toxic load in our environment and in our population.”
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The Canada Organic Trade Association is the membership-based trade association for the organic sector in Canada, representing growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers' associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others in the organic value chain. COTA’s mission is to promote and protect the growth of organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public and the economy.