Strawberry Show Down: No Methyl Iodide with My Shortcake, Please | Civil Eats

Strawberry Show Down: No Methyl Iodide with My Shortcake, Please

Commercially grown strawberries and tomatoes in California could start getting an unhealthy dose of the highly toxic fumigant methyl iodide, a known carcinogen, neurotoxin, and thyroid disruptor. Among scientists’ greatest concerns is the pesticide’s ability to cause spontaneous abortion late in pregnancy. So you might be surprised to hear that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) recently issued a proposed decision to approve methyl iodide for use just months after a state-commissioned study warned that 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.”

Strawberries are already near the top of the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen (13 pesticides were detected on a single sample) and recently, a high-level Presidential Cancer Panel recommended reducing chemical exposure by choosing fruits and vegetables grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers (i.e., organic).

According to Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first registered methyl iodide as a pesticide in 2007, despite a letter of protest [PDF] sent by prominent scientists and Nobel laureates to the agency saying that it’s “astonishing” that the EPA is considering “broadcast releases of one of the more toxic chemicals used in manufacturing into the environment.” EPA initially limited its approval, registering methyl iodide for just one year. Then, during the final months of the Bush Administration, EPA quietly removed the time limits on its decision, effectively giving its manufacturer, Tokyo-based Arysta LifeScience, the largest privately-held pesticide producer on the planet, a green light for entry into the U.S. market. Two years later, the EPA agreed to reopen its decision on methyl iodide, pending results of a California Scientific Review Committee. The report, referenced above, was published on DPR’s Web site in February and shortly thereafter, groups from around the country submitted a petition [PDF] to EPA to reopen their decision.

“We are talking about a pesticide that’s been linked to cancer and late-term miscarriages and, because it’s a gas, easily drifts from the fields and into nearby communities,” said Greg Loarie, an attorney for Earthjustice, which filed the petition. “Families who live and work near California’s tomato, strawberry and other fields will be harmed if the state moves forward with this proposal. There are safe alternatives to methyl iodide. There is simply no reason to be subjecting Californians to such serious health risks.”

Methyl iodide was developed as an alternative to the fumigant methyl bromide, a chemical which also has serious health implications and serious environmental impacts, and which is being phased out under the Montreal Protocol. According [PDF] to PANNA, methyl iodide is by some measures four times as toxic as methyl bromide. Despite this, the DPR has decided that further restrictions would make the pesticide safe enough for use. These include requiring site-specific licenses, limiting exposure for workers and people living nearby to one-half and one-fifth, respectively, of the EPA’s regulatory target levels, increasing buffer zones, and limiting the rate and extent to which the fumigant can be used. “The extra, health-protective use restrictions we are proposing … are much stricter than those imposed anywhere else in the United States,” said DPR director Mary-Ann Warmerdam. Still, the facts remain that methyl iodide is chemically reactive and highly volatile, making its application, even in the best of circumstances, clearly not in the public interest. While the California Strawberry Growers Commission has yet to make its position known on the matter, Salinas Valley conventional strawberry growers apparently welcome the approval–strawberries were a $600 million, 10,449-acre crop there in 2008.

And just in case you thought this might be about whether you can still buy cheap strawberries at Costco, PANNA has put together a superb document, Profiles of Poison [PDF], detailing the personal stories of individuals impacted by pesticides who are saying no to methyl iodide. From the farmworker rushed to the hospital with severe chemical blistering and in need of respiratory support, to the pregnant mother who lost her baby only two days after being exposed to pesticide dew, these are the stories of people who have lived through the pain and trauma of pesticide poisoning and are speaking out to prevent others from suffering the same fate.

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The DPR is accepting public comments on its proposal through June 14, so unless you’d like some more toxins with your strawberry smoothie, you might want to urge DPR to immediately withdraw the recommendation to approve its agricultural use. CREDO has a one-step simple petition you can sign to make your opposition heard as well.

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Naomi Starkman is the founder and editor-in-chief of Civil Eats. She was a 2016 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. Naomi has worked as a media consultant at Newsweek, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, WIRED, and Consumer Reports magazines. After graduating from law school, she served as the Deputy Executive Director of the City of San Francisco’s Ethics Commission. Naomi is an avid organic gardener, having worked on several farms.  Read more >

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  1. Diana Rodgers
    Yoo who?

    We've got an organic movement afoot and all sorts of cancers and disorders are being attributed to pesticide use.

    How bout just say NO!
  2. Kerry Olinger
    Why are we encouraging people to eat fruits and vegetables if we are going to expose them to cancer causing chemicals when they do so?
  3. Dale
    Methyl iodide is a highly reactive gas which will be gone long before these fruits are picked. The danger is to the people who apply the methyl iodide.

    Strawberries need to have acidic soil to kill the micro-organisms that cause strawberry diseases. If the soil isn't acidic enough, and if making it acidic is too expensive both financially and in terms of damage to the environment, other means such as fumigation with methyl halides must be used if strawberries are to be grown.

    Banning the use of methyl halides would mean strawberries could not be grown on that land, which is certainly a valid option in my opinion.
  4. They want us to support California grown, but this is a reason to avoid the Cali grown. Whats up with this...Thanks for the local guys that do organic....
  5. Yet another reason to remain unwaveringly loyal to my local farmer.
  6. I have edited a CA assembly hearing so you can see and hear the scientists testimony first hand. "Methyl Iodide kills or mutates every cell it touches, on contact." Says Kathleen Collins PhD. UC Berkeley. Dr Neil Schore UC Davis, says that because methyl iodide is 5 times heavier than oxygen it seeks to meet the groundwater, when is does it changes into methyl alcohol, and the saying is 2 tsp. and your blind and a half cup and your dead. Because, most of CA residents have groundwater as their main source of water supply it would mean that our water would become toxic/poison in as little as 4 - 6 months. Two children have died in Utah from exposure and 50 thousand Lbs. have been spilled in SC. (Source: You can find the videos on YouTube, at profile name: IfilmORG . I want to urge everyone to make public comments on the California Department of Pesticide Regulation web site at: The public comment time ends soon so don't delay.

    Methyl iodide is made by Arysta LifeSciences, the tenth largest chemical company in the world, based in Tokyo. They named Methyl iodide Midas, like the Greek God. When I commented that King Midas killed everything he touched including his daughter, the company took the name Midas off it's web site (as of last Tuesday). How telling, the name Midas. The salesman for Arysta LifeSciences, Bill Lewis, told the Labor and Employment committee (see video:YouTube IfilmORG) that the UC Regents are the patent owners of methyl iodide and will be paid a per pound profit for it's use after registration. The UC Regents, in my experience pressure Professors into saying what is in their best interests. I am an alumni of the UC system and I take this personally. Methyl Iodide was formulated at UC Riverside - lab techs had serious health complications while working with MEI. I also found this article from the Annals (Methyl Iodide Intoxication: A Case Report) and "A comparative investigation of the metabolism of methyl bromide". The reason I am being so vocal is because I am an American who is very concerned about our children's health and safety.
  7. Dale is absolutely incorrect. Strawberries like well-draining, sandy soils, which tend to be neutral to basic in acidity. A good healthy balance of beneficial organisms and organic matter to feed them are an excellent way to stave off disease, as is a 3-5 year rotation with other crops such as brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, etc.). There are many successful organic strawberry farmers with good yields using a combo of healthy plugs (starts), bio-active compost, and rotations. No need for methyl iodide to supply our strawberry hankering....
  8. I'm not growing strawberries commercially, but there are plenty of small farmers in southeastern PA who do. And we're all using organic methods without any pesticides. The berries are about the easiest fruits to grow and using mulch of straw reduces contact with the soil, which is where they pick up disease.

    I have 4 year old prolific beds that are filled with weeds (another supposed no-no) that eventually turn into a great mulch underneath the plants - I can't keep up with production. Organics rule!!

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