Green groups, California regulators face off over strawberry farm poison: Before you pop that strawberry into your mouth, consider this: you could be helping poison the farmers who grow these strawberries, as well as their children, and the groundwater in the farms they tend.
That’s according to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), other environmental activists and scientists who are behind a suit asking California’s pesticide regulators to overturn its decision allowing the use of methyl iodide as a fumigant, mostly in strawberry farms.
According to PAN, exposure to methyl iodide “causes late term miscarriages, contaminates groundwater and is so reliably carcinogenic that it’s used to create cancer cells in laboratories.”
Last year, lawyers from PAN, Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. filed suit challenging the chemical’s approval on behalf of several environmental and farm workers groups.
The farmers, many of them those who tend California’s vast strawberry fields, claimed that state officials approved the fumigant despite scientists’ warnings as well as warnings from the state’s own DPR.
There’s no danger for strawberry lovers, though. Applied to soil before planting, the controversial chemical poses little risk to consumers of the popular fruit. But for farm workers who apply it and people who live near treated fields — especially their children — methyl iodide is a clear and ever-present danger, as it can be carried on the wind.
“When researchers want to intentionally create cancerous cells in laboratories, they often use methyl iodide, a chemical that is also a neurotoxin and causes late-term miscarriages,” notes Barry Estabrook in an article for the Atlantic.
“Nobody disputes that methyl iodide is a potent poison,” Earthjustice lawyer Greg Loarie said in a press release in 2010, when it filed the suit.
“By approving the cancer-causing pesticide, California’s pesticide regulators ignored the science and broke important laws designed to protect public health,” the group said.
Earlier, before the fumigant was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 50 scientists—including five Nobel laureates in chemistry—wrote an “urgent” letter to the EPA pleading that methyl iodide not be approved for agricultural use.
Writing the letter toward the end of the Bush II administration, the scientists said: “We are concerned that pregnant women and the fetus, children, the elderly, farm workers, and other people living near application sites would be at serious risk if methyl iodide is permitted for use in agriculture.”
Discounting their concerns, the EPA approved its use in October 2007. The decision, which remains in effect today, remains one of the agency’s most controversial decisions ever, says Tom Philpott, who investigates food and agriculture for Mother Jones.
The lobbyists also failed in California, which sets an additional set of environmental regulations on top of the EPA’s.
Philpott reports that when California convened an independent scientific advisory panel to assess the risks of the chemical for agricultural use, its findings were blunt: Methyl iodide is a “highly toxic chemical” and its use in farm fields “would result in exposures to a large number of the public and would have a significant adverse impact on the public health.” Preventing exposure to it would be “difficult, if not impossible,” the panel concluded in February 2010.
According to the Ventura County Star, a local news site for California’s Ventura county, the experts’ panel has explicitly said methyl iodide presents “significant health risks for workers and the general population.”
With more than 800,000 pounds of methyl bromide were applied to over 4,000 acres of mostly strawberry farms in Ventura County as a soil fumigant in 2007, the county ranks among the highest in fumigant use in the U.S. and has a special interest in the controversial use of the new methyl iodide.
Led by the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA ) Dr. John Froines, the panel of eight toxicologists from around the country specifically recommended that methyl iodide not be approved as a soil fumigant in California.
But the DPR had said the panel had gone beyond its scope of work, which was only “to review scientific and technical matters, leaving policy determinations to the department.”
Eventually, California followed the EPA’s lead and approved the use of methyl iodide in 2010, just before Gov. Schwarzenegger left office.
The two agencies approved the use of the potent poison in 2007 despite swelling protests — but the ongoing lawsuit could change that.
How did this come about?
Crops that are planted in the same fields year after year — like California’s vast monocrops of strawberries and other fruits like tomatoes — are are susceptible to nematodes, a microscopic pest that eat the plant’s roots, explains Philpott.
Forced by large-scale agriculture to turn away from environmental practices like diversifying or rotating crops, farmers have come to rely on fumigants to “sterilize” the soil before planting, he says.
In an article for the Mother Jones, Philpott reports that for decades, farmers used methyl bromide to fumigate their crops. Also highly toxic to the farm workers who apply it and the farm dwellers that live near fields, it was also frowned upon because it turned out to be “one the world’s most powerful ozone-layer-destroying substances.”
The U.S. government agreed to phase out methyl bromide as early as 1987. And when it signed the international Montreal Protocol aimed to save the ozone layer in 2005, the U.S. became legally compelled to stop using the chemical.
Philpott goes on to recount that over the years, evidence of the horrific harm methyl bromide causes farm workers and their children has piled up. But U.S. farmers still spray millions of pounds of methyl bromide onto fields each year — under exceptions to the Montreal Protocol vigorously negotiated by U.S. administrations, up to and including Obama’s, he says.
But the U.S. government was loathe to fully ban methyl bromide until a suitable alternative is found—and for years, the agrichemical industry has been scrambling to find a Montreal Pact-friendly alternative.
Then in 2006, the Japanese chemical giant Arysta LifeScience presented methyl iodide to the EPA as a stand-in for methyl bromide, saying it works just as well on nematodes but doesn’t harm the ozone layer.
Philpott reveals that during the period that the EPA was considering the use of methyl iodide, Arysta had close ties with the EPA: In 2006, then-EPA director Stephen Johnson appointed Elin Miller, then-CEO of the North American arm of Arysta, to a high post within the agency.
Weeks after the EPA’s decision to approve the use of methyl iodide in 2007, Arysta — suddenly poised to take over the lucrative U.S. fruit fumigation market — was sold for a cool $2.2 billion, notes Philpott.
When pesticides are registered with the EPA, they can be used in farms in most U.S. states. But California — the largest potential market for methyl iodide because of its huge strawberry industry — requires as additional approval process through the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR).
After a long and drawn-out process, the DPR approved methyl iodide in December 2010, once again defying objections from independent scientists. In a report, Jen Quraishi of Mother Jones claims that the DPR manipulated evidence to justify its decision.
What does the EPA say?
In its Hazard Summary created in April 1992 and revised in January 2000, the EPA warns that acute or short-term exposure to methyl iodide by inhalation may depress the central nervous system (CNS), irritate the lungs and skin, and affect the kidneys.
Acute inhalation exposure of methyl iodide also causes nausea, vomiting, vertigo, ataxia, slurred speech, drowsiness, skin blistering, and eye irritation, the agency said. Massive acute inhalation exposure to methyl iodide has also lead to pulmonary edema, it notes.
Chronic or long-term exposure of humans to methyl iodide by inhalation may affect the CNS and cause skin burns.
But as for cancer, the EPA says it has not classified methyl iodide for potential carcinogenicity. “No information is available on the carcinogenic effects of methyl iodide in humans,” the EPA says.
“There is limited evidence that methyl iodide is carcinogenic in animals, with lung tumors observed in studies of mice and rats,” the EPA admits. It also owns up to the fact that lab rats exposed to the chemical developed tumors and lung cancer. “In rats that received subcutaneous injections, subcutaneous sarcomas and pulmonary metastases were reported. An increased incidence of lung tumors was reported in mice exposed to high levels of methyl iodide by intraperitoneal injection.”
The agency says the main sources of information for this fact sheet are the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) monographs on chemicals carcinogenic to humans and the Hazardous Substances Data Bank (HSDB), a database of summaries of peer-reviewed literature.
Meanwhile, in an email response to Barry Estabrook, writer of The Atlantic, the manufacturer of methyl iodide, Arysta, claimed that the chemical is naturally occurring and produced by marine algae.
Methyl iodide has been used as a fumigant in the southeast U.S. since 2007 without a single safety incident reported, Arysta added.
Growing nationwide opposition
In April 2010, labor and environmental organizations — as well as 35 California legislators — signed the letter asking the EPA to “suspend and cancel” all uses of methyl iodide in the United States. At the same time, California Governor Jerry Brown promised to reconsider the state’s decision to register methyl iodide.
The EPA has since opened a public comment period on a petition asking it to ban methyl iodide. So far, more than 200,000 citizens have written in support of the ban.
Earlier this month, the case came before the Alameda County Superior Court. The decision is expected in a few months, the Atlantic reports.
So far, Judge Frank Roesch, who is hearing the California case, said he found no evidence that the state officials had ever considered not approving methyl iodide. Without such evidence, the judge said that he could not see how the state could “prevail in this lawsuit.”