California’s little-known Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) entered the spotlight this month as scientists, farm workers, and activists rallied against the department’s proposal to approve methyl iodide for use in the state’s $2.1 billion strawberry industry. (Civil Eats first reported on methyl iodide here.) On Thursday, DPR officials along with scientists testified at a State Senate hearing on the controversial fumigant, which chemists classify as a neurotoxin and carcinogen. Dozens of activists attended the hearing and delivered to Governor Schwarzenegger some 40,000 letters of opposition to the DPR proposal.
DPR Director Mary-Ann Warmerdam said that the state is under federal pressure to approve methyl iodide as an alternative to methyl bromide, the ozone-depleting fumigant that the U.S. is phasing out per the Montreal Protocol. In 2007, the EPA reversed its initial ban on methyl iodide, making it possible for Arysta LifeScience to distribute the fumigant under the brand name of MIDASã. While Schwarzenegger and Warmerdam suggest their hands are tied, other alternatives to methyl bromide do exist––including crop rotation and a new technique pioneered at UC Santa Cruz called anaerobic soil disinfestation.
Although the DPR would permit farmers to use methyl iodide on a range of crops from tomatoes to stone fruit, the high cost of MIDASã makes it economically viable only for luxury crops like strawberries. Which is why all eyes––including the EPA’s––are on California. “The reality is that California is the biggest user of fumigant pesticides for strawberries in the country,” Paul Towers, the state director of Pesticide Watch, said. “As a result, Californians are in the bulls-eye of pesticide manufacturers hoping to push their newest toxic product.” If the DPR reverses course by rejecting Arysta’s application, the EPA would likely re-evaluate its own 2007 decision.
To date however, Schwarzenegger and Warmerdam have been pushing Arysta’s application through the state risk assessment process. And that has scientists extremely worried. Both the DPR’s in-house scientific team and an independent review committee concluded that methyl iodide poses grave risks––cancer and miscarriage among them––that are not yet fully understood. The DPR recommendations come out of “an enormous vacuum” of information, said UCLA chemist Dr. John Froines. Other scientists blasted the DPR for proposing that California growers be permitted to apply methyl iodide at up to 100 pounds per acre. This translates into potential exposure rates for farm workers and nearby residents that are 100 times greater than the scientists reluctantly established as the upper limit for safe use of the pesticide. Molecular biologist Dr. Ed Loechler explained that methyl iodide presents a tremendous public health threat because of how readily it can cause DNA mutations and, by extension, cancer.
Susan Kegley, director of the Pesticide Research Institute, would add that the environmental risks are just as serious, but perhaps even less well understood. When Florida approved methyl iodide, the state required Arysta to undertake ongoing water monitoring to assess the fumigant’s environmental impact. But the company has so far failed to carry out this study, even though groundwater contamination may prove to be the most serious long-term impact.
Warmerdam assured Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, who convened Thursday’s hearing, that the DPR’s proposed regulations are more strict than the EPA’s and would mitigate both the health and environmental risks. These regulations would require all workers who apply methyl iodide be fitted with respirators, applied fields be covered with a protective tarp for 24-hours, and buffer zones be established to protect nearby workers and residents. Opponents maintain that these measures are grossly insufficient. Assembly member Bill Monning said, “the problem we have in the real world is that you have workers working in adjacent fields–– they’re not wearing respirators” and pesticides get blown from “field A to field B to residential area.” Warmerdam admitted as much, acknowledging that the DPR does not take real world variables into account. She went on to say that violations simply reflect “a bad personal decision” on the part of workers or farm owners.
Responding to Warmerdam’s testimony, Towers highlighted the disconnect between the DRP proposal and the enormous scientific and public consensus about methyl iodide: “Yesterday’s hearing demonstrated the Schwarzenegger Administration’s clear disregard for science. In the face of substantial testimony from world-class scientists about the public health dangers to farm workers, neighboring communities, and consumers, the Administration is choosing to look the other way.”
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