Strawberry Showdown: No Methyl Iodide with My Shortcake, Please

Commercially grown strawberries and tomatoes in California could start getting an unhealthy dose of the highly toxic methyl iodide. Among scientists' greatest concerns is the pesticide's ability to cause spontaneous abortion late in pregnancy.
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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.

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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