As California’s embattled pesticide chief steps down following criticisms of her agency’s controversial approval of the pesticide methyl iodide, the federal government is signaling it will take a closer look at its own approval of the cancer-causing pesticide used on strawberry fields.
The agency is inviting the public to comment on a petition filed with the US Environmental Protection Agency by public health, labor and farmworker advocacy organizations to repeal methyl iodide’s approval, which was rushed through in the closing days of the Bush administration, ignoring concerns from more than 50 eminent scientists—including six Nobel Laureates in Chemistry.
“The science is in. An immediate withdrawal of methyl iodide from the market is the best strategy for preventing adverse effects from this highly toxic pesticide,” said Dr. Susan Kegley, Consulting Scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America. “Unless U.S. EPA wants to see more groundwater contamination, increased numbers of late-term miscarriages in women who live or work near methyl iodide applications, more thyroid disease, and more cancers, they need to get this dangerous chemical off the market.”
Seemingly following a page from the Bush playbook, in December California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) issued an eleventh hour approval of the pesticide against the advice of scientists commissioned to study the issue.
The decision by DPR’s director Mary-Ann Warmerdam, drew the ire of the public, who submitted a record-breaking number of public comments – along with a lawsuit by public interest groups. Last week, Warmerdam announced her resignation. Days later, the EPA announced it was accepting public comment from now until April 30 on the pending federal petition.
“Days after Mary-Ann Warmerdam, the architect of methyl iodide approval in California, stepped down to take a job in the private sector, the US EPA solicited input about the pesticide, called ‘the most dangerous chemical on earth,’” said Tracey Brieger, Co-Director of Californians for Pesticide Reform. “Are the toxic tides turning away from the corporate-dominated decisions of Bush and Schwarzenegger?”
The petition was filed last spring on behalf of United Farm Workers, Pesticide Action Network North America, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Farmworker Justice, Farmworker Association of Florida, Migrant Clinicians’ Network (TX), Oregon Toxics Alliance, Toxics Free North Carolina, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (OR), Pesticide Watch Education Fund (CA) and Californians for Pesticide Reform.
“We’re glad to see the Environmental Protection Agency taking this concrete first step toward repealing the last administration’s approval of this cancer-causing pesticide,” said Earthjustice attorney, Greg Loarie, who filed the petition and lawsuit on behalf of the groups. “As in California, the federal approval of methyl iodide was not only ill-considered, it was illegal.”
Methyl iodide causes late term miscarriages, contaminates groundwater and is so reliably carcinogenic that it’s used to create cancer cells in laboratories. It is included in California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. The pesticide poses the most direct risks to farm workers and neighboring communities because of the large quantities that would be applied to fields and its tendency to drift off site through the air. Use of methyl iodide is anticipated to be similar to methyl bromide and could top 6-10 million pounds a year in California alone.
“Communities and farmers can’t bear the burden of a cancer-causing strawberry pesticide,” said Paul Towers, state director of Pesticide Watch. “The federal government should heed the warning of world-class scientists and act swiftly to pull methyl iodide from the shelf.”
The chemical is approved to be applied to California’s strawberry fields at rates up to 110 pounds per acre on much of the state’s 38,000 acres in strawberry production, totaling millions of pounds of use. Though methyl iodide will likely be used primarily on strawberries, it is also registered for use on tomatoes, peppers, nurseries and on soils prior to replanting orchards and vineyards.
“It’s farmworkers like me who become sick,” said farmworker Jose Hidalgo from Salinas, California. “As a strawberry picker, I have worked near many pesticide applications. First we smell the pesticides. Then our eyes burn, our noses run and our throats hurt. I’m against using methyl iodide because it’s already too dangerous in the fields, we don’t need new, even more dangerous, toxins.”
Arysta LifeScience pushed to secure registration of the pesticide in California because it is one of the most lucrative pesticide markets in the nation. New York and Washington states refused to register methyl iodide for agricultural purposes.