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California set to use toxic pesticide on strawberry fields, despite scientific warnings

by Chris Hinyub, published

Ignoring recommendations of scientists, California's Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) is set to approve methyl iodide – a highly potent carcinogen and suspected neurotoxin– for use as a fumigant on the state's strawberry fields.  An eight-member panel of scientists was commissioned by the DPR to peer review its studies on the environmental impact of the compound. In February, the Scientific Review Committee concluded that methyl iodide was a threat to public health:

     "Based on the data available, we know that methyl iodide is a highly toxic chemical and we expect that any anticipated scenario for the agricultural or structural fumigation use of this agent would result in exposures to a large number of the public and thus would have a significant adverse impact on the public health. Due to the potent toxicity of methyl iodide, its transport in and ultimate fate in the environment, adequate control of human exposure would be difficult, if not impossible. This is clearly shown in the DPR risk calculations and the evidence of the toxicity of methyl iodide upon which these conclusions are based is compelling. In addition to the evidence for significant toxicity there is a lack of information that adds further uncertainty to the evaluation of the toxicity. We have concluded there is little doubt that the compound possesses significant toxicity." 

These findings echoed an established academic consensus, one which was ignored by the Bush-era EPA when methyl iodide was approved for use as a pesticide. In 2007, over 50 scientists addressed a letter to the EPA expressing outrage that the federal agency was “working to legalize broadcast releases of one of the more toxic chemicals used in manufacturing into the environment." 

However, current EPA officials are rethinking their stance on the substance, indicating that California's decision to ban or allow use as a pesticide could compel a "reconsideration of approval by the federal government.  The stakes are high for profiteers as California's $2 billion a year strawberry crop would be the largest market for the manufacturer of methyl iodide, according to Arysta LifeScience

Susan Kegley, a consulting chemist for Pesticide Action Network, summed up the effects of methyl iodide starkly: “This stuff just kills everything.” Kegley maintains it is a known carcinogen and that even low doses have caused neurological damage and fetal death in laboratory animals.  Available research shows methyl iodide can cause miscarriages, thyroid cancer and irrepairable brain damage. It has been linked to malignant tumours of the lungs and brain. 

“This is one of the most egregious pesticides out there," said Sarah Aird, state field organizer for Californians for Pesticide Reform. "It is really, really toxic. It is actually used in the laboratory to induce cancer cells.” 

Researchers are also concerned with the unstudied long-term neurological effects the compound would potentially have on farmworkers and the thousands of residents adjoining California's 35,000 acres of strawberry fields.  Speaking with the the Huffington Post, Ron Melnick, a panel member and scientist at the National Institutes of Health said, "We were actually - I don't want to use the word - horrified that there would even be a consideration of registration, without data about neurotoxicity." 

A coalition of watchdog groups opposed to the use of toxic chemicals including Californians for Pesticide Reform, the Pesticide Watch, and the Pesticide Action Network (PANNA) are sponsoring a rally at the state capital. Their goal is to “mount a visible public opposition to the approval of this pesticide” as a state Senate hearing convenes to discuss the issue on Thursday. 

The public comment period on methyl iodide ends on June 29.

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