Farmworkers challenge approval of methyl iodide on strawberry fields


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A group of environmental and community health organizations is challenging the state’s approval late last month of the agricultural fumigant methyl iodide, a state-listed carcinogen.

The coalition representing farmworkers and environmental groups charges that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation fast-tracked the registration of methyl iodide, and then invoked an emergency regulation to avoid legally mandated public hearings.


The fumigant, used by strawberry growers to prepare soil, was approved on Dec. 20 and designated a restricted material, requiring a permit from a county agricultural commission.

The lawsuit contends the department violated the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Birth Defects Prevention Act and the Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act , which protects groundwater from pesticide pollution, among others laws. In addition, the groups charge that the approval was rushed through in the waning days of the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration, and called on newly sworn-in Gov. Jerry Brown to reverse the decision.

But the state says it has carefully considered approval of the pesticide. “Registration of methyl iodide was not fast-tracked,” said Lea Brooks, spokeswoman for the Department of Pesticide Regulation, saying the manufacturer Arysta LifeScience submitted its application in 2002.

“Methyl iodine is the most evaluated pesticide in the Department of Pesticide Regulation’s history,” Brooks said.

The chemical is a substitute for the banned fumigant methyl bromide. Growers inject the pesticide directly into the soil then cover the area with a tarp. The chemical and its application is expensive and usually reserved for high-end crops such as strawberries.

Farmworkers, who rarely use respirators, are especially at risk when in contact with methyl iodide, which is listed under California’s Proposition 65 as a carcinogen. Laboratory tests on animals have linked methyl iodide to miscarriages, cognitive impairment and thyroid toxicity.

Before the state approved the chemical, it conducted an extensive risk assessment, and the DPR appointed a scientific review committee to analyze the state’s work. The panel found that the agency’s work was more thorough than the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s and concluded the analysis was ‘scientifically rigorous.”


The eight-person committee also found, however, that the paucity of research about methyl iodide should give state regulators pause.

“We have concluded there is little doubt that the compound possesses significant toxicity,’ the report said, detailing the subtance’s ability to alter DNA . The report, submitted in February 2010, also raised a red flag regarding the potential of methyl iodide to contaminate groundwater.

“The modeled calculations we reviewed indicated the potential for unacceptably high levels of iodide to accumulate in water supplies,” it said.

Susan Kegley, a consulting scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America, said there is no reliable data on methyl iodine and cancer in humans.

“This would be a first, and we Californians would be the guinea pigs in that experiment,” she said.


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--Julie Cart