Toxic Chemical Approved for Pesticide Use on California Strawberries

Local strawberries in downtown Sandusky, OH, at the Sandusky Bay Farmers' Market that are grown without the use of chemical sprays. photo: Jenna Martin

A decision last week by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) approved methyl iodide as a pesticide for the state’s strawberry fields and farmers could start spraying it as early as this spring. The toxins in methyl iodide are so potent that the chemical is used to grow cancer cells in laboratory settings.

Well-known among scientists for its ability to bind to DNA and cause mutations, methyl iodide is being touted as the replacement for methyl bromide, a fumigant that is being phased out because of all the damage it’s done to our stratospheric ozone layer. However the replacement pesticide is listed as a carcinogen in California, and it’s also been associated with miscarriages, thyroid disease and neurological disorders. The DPR approved the use of methyl iodide at 100 times the level scientists consider safe.

“The methyl group can affect your DNA and change the way your genes function,” explains chemist Susan Kegley, PhD, founder of the Pesticide Research Institute, and consulting scientist for Pesticide Action Network. “Methyl iodide is a reactive and toxic chemical.”

Caving to chemical industry pressure, including an intensive pro-methyl-iodide lobbying and communications campaign run by Japanese chemical company Arysta LifeScience – methyl iodide manufacturer and the largest privately held pesticide company in the world, the state of California disregarded the findings of top scientists who have consistently said that the chemical is too dangerous to be used in agriculture. Eariler this year, all eight independent researchers on the DPR’s scientific advisory panel – experts in toxicology, carcinogens, and neurotoxins – expressed serious concerns about using the chemical as a pesticide.

In 2007, the Bush Administration’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved methyl iodide at the national level, ignoring concerns from a group of over 50 eminent scientists – including six Nobel Laureates in Chemistry – who expressed astonishment in a letter to U.S. EPA that the agency was “working to legalize broadcast releases of one of the more toxic chemicals used in manufacturing into the environment.”

Most states just accept what the EPA approves, but California, Florida, Washington, and New York have their own approval programs. New York is not using methyl iodide after the Arysta LifeScience refused to hand over more detailed information regarding the pesticide. Florida approved it, with some restrictions, and as Washington recently refused to approve it, California is added to the existing list of 47 states that have already registered it’s use and where it’s currently being applied on strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and nursery crops.

For Californians, methyl iodide poses a public health risk to farm workers and those who live near fields where it will be applied. There’s also worry that since the fumigant is also injected into the ground before planting to kill organisms in the soil, it could contaminate water supplies. Since the chemical was only registered in 2007, there’s no long-term data looking at the health and environment implications of using the substance on such a large scale or in more populated areas.

For the rest of the U.S., California’s recent decision will affect us at the supermarket as the Golden State grows over 90% of the country’s strawberry supply.

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  • Concerned Citizen

    I’ve almost completely lost faith in the EPA :(