Are Strawberries With Methyl Iodide Safe to Eat?

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.

Undoubtedly poison
“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.