Newly released documents show that a Schwarzenegger political appointee within the state agency that approved the cancer-causing strawberry pesticide methyl iodide favored the input of the chemical’s manufacturer, Arysta LifeScience, over the recommendations of its own scientists. The new documents—released in accordance with a court order in the California-based litigation challenging methyl iodide—show that top scientists in the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) warned of the dangers of methyl iodide and strongly criticized the methods by which the “acceptable” levels of exposure were set by DPR management.
“These smoking gun memos show that state officials cherry-picked calculations to support their preferred outcome of approving methyl iodide instead of letting science guide their decision-making,” said Susan Kegley, PhD, Consulting Scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America. “Ignoring the science and prioritizing the needs of the manufacturer has put the health and safety of Californians at great risk.”
A team of independent scientists, convened by the state, determined that agricultural uses of methyl iodide would likely result in farmworkers and rural communities facing exposures far above levels of concern, unless the size of the buffer zone, where no pesticides are applied, was “several hundred feet to several miles.” In one memo outlining buffer zone options to protect bystanders and workers, DPR decision makers characterized large buffer zones as “excessive and difficult to enforce” noting that “[t]he registrant [manufacturer Arysta LifeScience] may find these buffer zones unacceptable due to its economic viability.”
The documents show that DPR management selected the desired buffer zones first and then mixed and matched methods of risk assessment to obtain an “acceptable” level of exposure. Current approved buffer zones are 200 feet for a broadcast fumigation of a 10-acre field. Had the scientists’ risk assessment methods been followed, this application would have required a buffer zone of at least a mile.
One document from DPR’s own scientists suggests that DPR management misused data to justify their conclusions, stating that numbers “appear to have been extracted from different MeI [methyl iodide] risk assessment methodologies that are not interchangeable … It is not scientifically credible to select a value or assumption from one and combine it with a value or assumption from another.”
A judge ordered the documents released on August 12, after DPR lost a battle to hide them from the public, ruling that, “…the public’s interest in disclosure under these circumstances clearly outweighs the interest in keeping them confidential. The documents are important to an understanding of the decision to permit the use of the pesticide at issue in this litigation.”
“State officials fought hard in the courts to make sure that these documents would never see the light of day," said Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie. "The public has a right to know how officials arrived at their dangerous decision to register methyl iodide and now they do.”
Approval of the pesticide was rushed through in the final days of the Schwarzenegger Administration. Responding to requests to reverse the decision, Governor Brown said he would “take a fresh look” at the chemical, while his administration said it would consider any new evidence.
“Governor Brown has the opportunity to show that his administration respects science by reversing his predecessor’s indefensible decision on methyl iodide,” said Tracey Brieger, Co-Director at Californians for Pesticide Reform. “Basic public health protection requires that the state not allow broad scale release of ‘one of the most toxic chemicals on earth’ into the state’s fields and water supplies.”
State experts weren’t alone in warning about the dangers of widespread use of this cancer causing poison. Fifty-four eminent scientists, including six Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, said methyl iodide is “one of the more toxic chemicals used in manufacturing” and questioned the wisdom of U.S. EPA’s initial approval of the chemical.
The state-commissioned independent Scientific Review Committee agreed. Dr. John Froines, chair of the Committee, told press, “I honestly think that this chemical will cause disease and illness. And so does everyone else on the committee.” Theodore Slotkin, another panel member and professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University, wrote, “It is my personal opinion that this decision will result in serious harm to California citizens, and most especially to children.”
The lawsuit challenging approval of methyl iodide was filed in January by Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. on behalf of Pesticide Action Network North America, United Farm Workers of America, Californians for Pesticide Reform, Pesticide Watch Education Fund, Worksafe, Communities and Children, Advocates Against Pesticide Poisoning and farmworkers Jose Hidalgo Ramon and Zeferino Estrada. The suit claims state approval of methyl iodide violates the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Birth Defects Prevention Act, and the Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act.
“I’m mad that the Department that is supposed to protect us from pesticides was hijacked by a pesticide company,” said plaintiff Jose Hidalgo. “As a strawberry picker, we frequently see pesticide tarps blowing in the wind and experience the pain of pesticide exposure.”
Methyl iodide causes late term miscarriages, is a known carcinogen, and puts California’s scarce groundwater supplies at risk of iodide contamination. The pesticide poses the most direct risks to farmworkers and neighboring communities because of the volume that would be applied to fields and its tendency to drift off site through the air. Methyl iodide is currently approved to be applied to California’s strawberry fields at rates up to 100 pounds per acre on much of the state’s 38,000 acres in strawberry production, totaling potentially millions of pounds of use. In addition to strawberries, it is also registered for use on tomatoes, peppers, nurseries and on soils prior to replanting orchards and vineyards.
Unlike California and Florida, New York and Washington states have refused to approve methyl iodide as a pesticide.