Calif. Approves Pesticide for Strawberries, Vineyards

Calif. Approves Pesticide for Strawberries, Vineyards

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The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) has given a green light to the strawberry fumigant methyl iodide, after months of intense public concern over its safety.

“This is DPR’s most robust review and we have stronger health protection measures in place than any other state in the U.S.,” said the agency’s director, Mary-Ann Warmerdam, during a press conference Wednesday.

Warmerdam said the state is taking steps to designate methyl iodide a “restricted material,” requiring a permit from the agricultural commissioner in the county where the spraying will take place. The beefed-up precautions, in response to nearly 50,000 public comments over the pesticide’s safety, include stricter buffer zones, the use of DPR-approved special tarps during fumigation, and heightened groundwater and air-quality monitoring.

The pesticide is on track for use in California after the emergency regulations take effect in late December.

“With these safeguards, methyl iodide can be used without exposing workers and the public to harmful levels,” said Warmerdam in a statement.

But, members of a statewide coalition of public health advocates, farmworkers, and scientists, say the measures taken by DPR are not sufficient to protect worker or public health.

“This is very bad news for people who live in areas where strawberries are grown and where vineyards are being planted,” said Susan Kegley, a consulting scientists with the Pesticide Action Network. “[Methyl iodide] is highly toxic and can’t be contained even with DPR’s special restrictions on use.”

“We don’t think it’s safe at any level when applying to multi acres in an open situation [like fields],” said Anne Katten, a pesticide and worker safety specialist with California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. She says DPR’s own risk assessment set 0.3 parts per billion as a marginally acceptable exposure level. In its final decision, DPR will allow workers to be exposed to 96 parts per billion and bystanders to be exposed to 32 parts per billion.

State regulators say the exposure levels are much more stringent than those adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which approved methyl iodide for use in 2007.

Once registered in California, methyl iodide, a gas, can be applied before planting of crops, such as strawberries, tomatoes and stone fruits. Arysta LifeScience Corp. developed methyl iodide to replace methyl bromide, which was phased out under an international treaty to protect the ozone layer.

“Like methyl bromide, methyl iodide is a gaseous substance and is prone to drift, so it not only affects workers’ health but those living nearby,” said Joanne Perron, medical doctor and researcher with the University of California, San Francisco's Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. She called methyl iodide an “extremely toxic substance” that permanently affects cognitive and neurological functions and can cause late-term miscarriage and thyroid cancer.

“Even if applied properly, the risks are too great because people make mistakes,” Perron said.

Teresa DeAnda lived through such an accident in 1999 in the Central Valley town of Earlimart involving another pesticide, methyl isocyanate gas. After improper application, the fumigant drifted in a cloud over the town, located 30 miles north of Bakersfield. DeAnda says she was nursing her son at the time, and called the experience a “nightmare” for residents. She says she’s luckier than other residents because her kids only have minor health issues, including migraines and rashes.

After the accident, DeAnda started a community group, El Comité Para el Bienestar de Earlimart, made up of farmworkers.

“Farmworkers that are applying it, nothing can prevent them from getting it on and into them. But those who live alongside the fields, the children that are there [will be affected too]," she said. “It’s just so shameful that DPR is approving it.”

She says the state’s budget crisis means less funding for county agricultural commissioners to adequately monitor pesticide applications.

“All counties are very underfunded, so they don’t have the money to pay for more agriculture commission deputies to go around and monitor each application,” she said. “The rules and regulations are on the books, but until they are applied on the ground, and there’s someone watching and making sure it’s done right, it means nothing.”

Pesticide reform advocates like DeAnda, who is also an organizer based in Bakersfield with Californians for Pesticide Reform, are calling on Governor-elect Jerry Brown to ban methyl iodide and move toward green agriculture.