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Farmworker and Health Advocates Petition EPA to Cancel Carcinogenic Pesticide

(Beyond Pesticides, April 12, 2010) Environmental, public health, labor and farmworker advocacy organizations from across the country have filed a petition asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to rescind the Bush administration era approval of the highly toxic fumigant pesticide methyl iodide in light of troubling new findings uncovered in California studies. The petition was submitted on the birthday of famed farmworker rights advocate Cesar Chavez, who drew national attention to pesticide misuse on grapes in the 1980s.

“In 1988, Cesar Chavez again put his life on the line to draw attention to farmworker rights when he protested the use of pesticides with a 36-day, water-only fast,” said Jeannie Economos, Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project Coordinator at Farmworker Association of Florida. “Over 20 years later, we should not have to be fighting the same battles. Methyl iodide use takes us in the dead wrong direction for workers, public health and the future of agriculture.”

The movement to ban methyl iodide follows the legacy of Cesar Chavez: the pesticide poses significant, direct risks to farmworkers, their families and neighboring communities. Methyl iodide is a water contaminant, nervous system poison, thyroid toxicant and is listed on California’s Proposition 65 list of “chemicals known to cause cancer.” The chemical can readily become a gas and drift away from its intended target, despite any efforts to contain it. Methyl iodide would be primarily used on tomato and strawberry fields at rates up to 175 lbs per acre.

“A chemical used to create cancer cells in laboratories has no place being broadcast into the environment near where people live, work and play,” said Ed Zuroweste, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Migrant Clinicians Network. “Our communities are not lab rats.”

Methyl iodide is currently under scrutiny in California, as the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) considers it for registration in the state. In a report released in February, an external Scientific Review Committee convened by DPR noted that due to the high toxicity of methyl iodide, any agricultural use “would result in exposures to a large number of the public and thus would have a significant adverse impact on the public health” adding that, “adequate control of human exposure would be difficult, if not impossible.”

The panel also stated that, “in each and every instance where DPR findings differed from the USEPA risk assessment it was attributable to a more insightful and scientific approach having been undertaken by the DPR.”

“The science is in. An immediate withdrawal of methyl iodide from the market is the best strategy for preventing adverse effects from this highly toxic pesticide,” said Dr. Susan Kegley, PhD, Consulting Scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America. “Unless U.S. EPA wants to see more groundwater contamination, increased numbers of late-term miscarriages in women who live or work near methyl iodide applications, more thyroid disease, and more cancers, they must stop the use of this dangerous chemical.”

In light of the California findings, the non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice filed a petition on behalf of eleven groups, asking EPA to cancel the registration of methyl iodide nationally.

“We are talking about a pesticide that’s been linked to cancer and miscarriages and that never should have been approved in the first place,” said Earthjustice Research Associate Sarah Jackson. “As it did with DDT and Agent Orange, EPA can and should ban methyl iodide. Especially when safe alternatives exist, there is no reason to be subjecting people to such serious health risks.”

The petitioners are United Farm Workers Union, Pesticide Action Network North America, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Farmworker Justice, Farmworker Association of Florida, Migrant Clinicians’ Network (TX), Oregon Toxics Alliance, Toxics Free North Carolina, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (OR), Pesticide Watch (CA) and Californians for Pesticide Reform.

The use of methyl iodide in agriculture has repeatedly raised significant concern from scientists and health professionals across the country, including five Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, who were “astonished” that a chemical posing such high risks to human health would be considered for use in agriculture.

Despite this, the Bush Administration’s EPA registered methyl iodide nationally in 2007, automatically registering it in a number of states that don’t conduct independent scientific reviews. However, New York, Washington state and California have their own review process for all new pesticides.

Tokyo-based Arysta LifeScience Corporation, the largest privately held agrichemical company in the world and manufacturer of methyl iodide, is pushing to register the chemical in two states where decisions are still pending: Washington and California, the country’s most lucrative markets for the pesticide. In New York, Arysta already pulled the chemical, citing obstacles and lack of market opportunities. According to Arysta, the pesticide is being used in twelve states (Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan, Maine, New Jersey and Oregon).

On the same day the petition was filed, President Obama met with members of the Chavez family, United Farmworkers (UFW) President Arturo S. Rodriguez, and UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta at the White House in which the President signed a proclamation honoring Cesar Chavez.

“We thank President Obama for honoring Cesar Chavez on this important day for millions of Americans. We thank the President for his concern for the farm workers who feed our nation every day, and for his strong support of immigration reform. No other change is more urgently needed, and would be more lasting. We shared with President Obama 10 letters written to him by farm workers from across the country, telling him about the realities and challenges of their lives,” said Mr. Rodriguez. “Cesar Chavez has been honored in hundreds of communities across the nation. His birthday is an official holiday in 11 states. But the best way to honor Cesar is by helping the farm workers to whom he dedicated his life, and by using our lives to serve others less fortunate than us.”

A native of Texas, Mr. Rodriguez has worked tirelessly to continue the legacy of Cesar Chavez since taking over the helm of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) upon the death of its legendary founder in 1993. Beyond winning fair contracts for its workers, the UFW continues to work to protect farmworkers from pesticides and other workplace hazards. Recent union victories are agreements with Gallo Vineyards Inc. and Coastal Berry Co., the largest winery and the largest strawberry employer in the U.S., as well as pacts protecting winery workers in Washington and mushroom workers in Florida.

To read more about UFW and the farmworker movement, see “Farmworker Justice and Our Health Future,” a transcription of Mr. Rodriguez’s inspiring speech at Beyond Pesticides’ 26th National Pesticide Forum in Berkley, California; and, “Social Justice and Food Production: Winning self-determination and justice for farmworkers,” a transcription of President and founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) Baldemar Velasquez delivered at the 27th National Pesticide Forum in Carrboro, North Carolina.

TAKE ACTION: Support organic farming and protect farmers, farmworkers, and their families and neighbors from toxic chemicals. 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. For more information of the many benefits of organic food, please visit Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Food program page.


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