Because methyl iodide, a cancer-causing chemical that is also a neurotoxin, kills soil-dwelling organisms, strawberry and tomato growers fumigate fields with it prior to planting. Despite protests, the EPA approved the use of this potent poison years ago.
As Tom Philpott points out, since the fumigant is applied to soil before plants go into the ground, it supposedly poses little risk to consumers of strawberries. “But for the farmworkers who apply it and the people who live near treated fields, it’s a different story, because of its tendency to drift off site through the air.”
According to Pesticide Action Network, 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.”
And attorneys for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, warns: “Breathing even small amounts causes slurred speech, vomiting, fetal miscarriage, and permanent damage to the lungs, liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Direct skin exposure causes burns. And methyl iodide causes cancer…”
Estabrook notes more than 50 scientists, including five Nobel laureates, claim methyl iodide is one of the most toxic chemicals used in manufacturing.
The scientists wrote a letter (PDF) to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toward the end of the Bush II administration pleading that methyl iodide not be approved for agricultural use.
They failed and California followed the EPA’s lead and approved it in 2010, just before Governor Schwarzenegger left office.
Estabrook adds that last year, “lawyers from Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. filed suit challenging the chemical’s approval on behalf of several environmental and farmworkers groups, who claimed that California officials approved the fumigant despite warnings from scientists in the state’s own Department of Pesticide Regulation. Earlier this month, the case came before the Alameda County Superior Court.”
Earthjustice lawyer Greg Loarie said in a press release that nobody disputes that methyl iodide is a potent poison. “By approving the cancer-causing pesticide, California’s pesticide regulators ignored the science and broke important laws designed to protect public health.”
Thirty-five California legislators signed a letter last April asking the EPA to “suspend and cancel” all uses of methyl iodide in the United States. And Jerry Brown has promised to reconsider the state’s decision to register methyl iodide.
The EPA has opened a public comment period on a petition, writes Estabrook, asking it to ban methyl iodide, and so far more than 200,000 citizens have written in support of the ban.
Robin Urevich, with the California Health Report notes some California growers claim they need methyl iodide to replace methyl bromide, a soil fumigant that will be banned under international treaty by 2015, because it depletes the earth’s ozone layer.
A ruling is expected in the coming weeks in one of the most controversial pesticides in use in California.