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Corporate Pressure Defeats Science on Methyl Iodide

(Beyond Pesticides, December 3, 2010) Ignoring the assessments of top U.S. scientists and its own Scientific Review Committee, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) announced its approval on December 1, 2010 for use of methyl iodide, a potent carcinogen and water contaminant, as a fumigant in the state’s strawberry fields, nut orchards, and flower farms. The news comes one day after press events in eight California cities urging DPR to deny its approval, and after Washington State decided to not allow use of the chemical.

Methyl iodide poses great risk to farmworkers and those who live near fields where it will be applied as well as to air and waterways, should it escape into the surrounding environment. It is on California’s official list of known carcinogenic chemicals and has been linked to serious risks in reproductive and neurological health.

A coalition of farmworker, farm, public health and environmental groups is calling on the administration of governor-elect Jerry Brown to work with his agency staff to undo this approval, and deny the use of methyl iodide in California. Specifically, the groups call on Brown to:

• Follow the recommendation of John Froines, PhD, Chair of the Scientific Review Committee, to reconvene the Committee and direct DPR to incorporate the Committee’s evaluation and analysis into its final decision and,
• Issue a moratorium on methyl iodide use on his first day in office.

Crumbling under chemical industry pressure, including an intensive pro-methyl-iodide lobbying and communications campaign run by Arysta LifeScience—methyl iodide manufacturer and the largest privately held pesticide company in the world, the state of California has disregarded the findings of top scientists who have consistently said that the chemical is too dangerous to be used in agriculture. Arysta LifeScience pushed to secure registration of the pesticide in California because it is one of the most lucrative pesticide markets in the nation.

The Scientific Review Committee (SRC) noted in its final report in February that, “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.”

Permits will be required for the use of the pesticide and strict guidelines have been put in place. DPR has said that it will impose more comprehensive controls on methyl iodide than EPA or any other state that allows its use, including: larger buffer zones around all applications; a minimum of a half–mile buffer around schools, hospitals, nursing homes and similar sites; reduced application rates and acreage that can be treated; and, application limits to protect groundwater. However, state Assemblyman Bill Monning says that, “With a limited state budget, it is going to be very difficult to rely on [county level] agricultural commissioners to provide enough oversight and monitoring if this goes into use extensively.”

Dr. John Froines, Chair of the SRC and Professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health at UCLA said in a Senate Food and Agriculture Committee Hearing in June, “I believe that if you go out into the real world, and I think everybody in this room knows what the real world in the valleys are about, that the mitigation strategies that are promised so articulately by Mary-Ann [Warmerdam, DPR Director], are not going to be adequate, because this is without question one of the most toxic chemicals on earth.” (page 46 of transcript)

“The decision to permit use of a chemical in the fields that causes cancer, late-term miscarriage and permanent neurological damage is a ticking time bomb,“ said Dr. Susan Kegley, Consulting Scientist with Pesticide Action Network. “The idea that this pesticide can be used safely in the fields is a myth.”

“The science is clear: there’s no way to use this chemical safely in the fields, no matter what conditions DPR puts on its use,” said Anne Katten, Pesticide and Worker Safety Specialist at California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

“The Schwarzenegger administration has left a huge mess for Governor Brown to clean up. Governor Brown and his staff should act immediately to ban the use of methyl iodide in California,” said Paul Towers, State Director of Pesticide Watch Education Fund.

In 2007, the Bush Administration’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved methyl iodide at the national level, ignoring concerns from a group of over 50 eminent scientists—including six Nobel Laureates in Chemistry—who expressed astonishment in a letter to U.S. EPA that the agency was “working to legalize broadcast releases of one of the more toxic chemicals used in manufacturing into the environment.”

Since then, the more protective registration processes in New York State and Washington State both rejected methyl iodide, and in August, Senator Dianne Feinstein asked the US EPA to review the pesticide’s registration nationally. The agency has said that it will open a public comment period on the pesticide’s approval due to the “complexity of the issues raised and the public interest in methyl iodide.”

Following their draft announcement in April to approve methyl iodide, DPR received over 53,000 public comments—the most in the history of the department, and the vast majority in opposition to approval.

“Today, California has failed communities who live near fields, trading our health to protect the profits of pesticide companies,” said Teresa DeAnda, President of the community group El Comité Para el Bienestar de Earlimart. “Governor Brown needs to take immediate action to ban methyl iodide because neither Arysta nor California regulators will be there to help when our communities get cancer and we lose our babies.”

The chemical will be used primarily to fumigate and sterilize strawberry fields. Despite the claims that it would not be possible to grow strawberries without methyl iodide, organic growers across the state do so successfully every year. In a February 8, 2010 hearing before the California Senate Committee on Food and Agriculture, two panels of California growers and researchers discussed a number of safe and effective alternatives to methyl iodide. These methods include solarization, anaerobic soil disinfestation, crop rotation, biological controls, selective breeding, soil steaming, hydroponics, and steam treatment for containerized plants. “I’ve been growing strawberries without using pesticides in California for 25 years,” said Jim Cochran, owner of Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, California. “It’s certainly possible to grow commercially-viable and ecologically sound strawberry crops without using methyl iodide or any other chemical pesticides.”

A study released in September from Washington State University showed that organic farms produced more flavorful and nutritious strawberries while leaving the soil healthier and more genetically diverse than conventional strawberry farms.

Sources: PANNA Press Release
Businessweek/Associated Press


One Response to “Corporate Pressure Defeats Science on Methyl Iodide”

  1. 1
    Don Hoernschemeyer Says:

    I read the SRC report and support its views. Any chemist will know that methyl iodide is a strong methylating agent, and it very likely to act on DNA.
    It is disheartening that the hazardous substances data bank of NIH (CASRN 74-88-4) states that methyl iodide is “not likely to be carcinogenic…In July 2009 is “was delisted as reasonbly anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
    Keep up the good work.

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