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Potent Carcinogen Methyl Iodide Used for First Time in California

(Beyond Pesticides, May 23, 2011) A California farm growing chile peppers has become the first in the state of California to use the highly toxic and controversial soil fumigant methyl iodide. Despite the concerns of farmworker advocates, medical experts, and environmentalists, as well as a pending lawsuit, the farm in Sanger, California applied the fumigant on May 17 after a permit for use was approved by Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Carol Hafner.

Methyl iodide is a highly potent carcinogen which was recently approved for use in California as a replacement for the ozone depleting chemical methyl bromide. The phase out of methyl bromide was mandated by the Clean Air Act and international treaty. Like methyl bromide before it, the use of methyl iodide has been expected to be most common on strawberry fields, though it has been approved for other crops such as the chile peppers, where it will be used to sterilize the soil to eliminate potential pathogens –but also will completely eradicate beneficial soil life such as microbes and earthworms.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s (DPR) approval of methyl iodide last year came over significant opposition from public health and environmental groups, as well as DPR’s own top scientists. DPR had asked its Scientific Review Committee (SRC) to examine the chemical and make recommendations regarding its potential use. When the team described its grave concerns over the possibility of public exposure to this chemical and strongly cautioned against its use, DPR ignored their input and proceeded to give methyl iodide its approval.

John Foines, PhD, the lead scientist and chair of the SRC, is quoted as saying, “I honestly think that this chemical will cause disease and illness. And so does everyone else on the committee.”

Theodore Slotkin, Ph.D., another panel member and professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University, wrote, “It is my personal opinion that this decision will result in serious harm to California citizens, and most especially to children.”Foines has also noted that the strategies DPR has proposed for mitigating the risks “are not going to be adequate, because this is without question one of the most toxic chemicals on earth.”

In January of this year, a lawsuit was filed by a coalition of farmworkers and environmental health organizations challenging DPR’s approval of methyl iodide on the grounds that it violates the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Birth Defects Prevention Act, and the Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act that protects groundwater against pesticide pollution. In addition, the suit contends that DPR violated the law requiring involvement of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) in the development of farmworker safety regulations and made an unlawful finding of emergency with its request for Restricted Materials status for methyl iodide.

Methyl iodide causes late term miscarriages, contaminates groundwater and is so reliably carcinogenic that it is used to create cancer cells in laboratories. It is also on California’s official list of known carcinogenic chemicals and has been linked to serious risks in reproductive and neurological health.

The pesticide 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. 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.

The only other previous permit application for methyl iodide use in California had been rejected last month by officials in Ventura County due to the presence of a playground less than half a mile away from the proposed application site.

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.”

Source: Fresno Bee


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