Suit Challenges California's Approval of Cancer-Causing Pesticide

Suit Challenges California's Approval of Cancer-Causing Pesticide

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SAN FRANCISCO—Sheer desperation forced Jose Hidalgo to join a class-action lawsuit filed last week in Alameda County Superior Court, challenging California’s approval of the cancer-causing strawberry fumigant, methyl iodide.

“I like my job, but I am afraid of what it is doing to my health,” the 35-year-old Mexican immigrant said in Spanish in a telephone interview translated by his Salinas-based attorney, Michael Marsh.

On Dec. 29, over the strident opposition of environmental and farm worker groups, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) approved the pesticide for use by fruit and vegetable growers.

Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance filed the suit on behalf of labor and environmental groups, including United Farm Workers.

The suit claims, among other things, that the DPR approved methyl iodide Dec. 20 in violation of state laws that protect groundwater against pesticide pollution. Methyl iodide is on the state’s list of cancer-causing agents, according to the suit.

In an e-mail sent to New America Media, the DPR defended its approval.

"Methyl iodide is the most evaluated pesticide in the DPR's history. DPR's evaluation determined methyl iodide can be used safely under its toughest-in-the-nation health protective measures, including stricter buffer zones, more groundwater protections, reduced application rates and stronger protections for workers."

Methyl iodide will replace another pesticide, methyl bromide, which is being phased out by a 2005 international treaty because it depletes the earth’s protective ozone layer.

Even though methyl iodide is also registered for use on tomatoes, peppers and nurseries, the bulk of its use will be in strawberry fields.

The fumigant has been found to cause late term miscarriages and contaminate groundwater, said Tracey Brieger, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform, during a media teleconference Jan. 3.

Because of the volume that would need to be applied to fields, and its tendency to drift offsite through the air, the fumigant poses the greatest risk to farm workers and neighboring communities, environmentalists say.

And because of its volatility, the fumigant “won’t settle on strawberries, so consumers are not” at as great a risk as are farm workers, observed Susan Kegley, a consulting scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the use of methyl iodide as a safe replacement in 2007. Even though most states do not have a separate approval process and generally go along with the EPA decision, “only 11 or 12 states are currently using it,” noted Kegley. Europe does not allow its use, she pointed out.

Arysta Lifescience North America, methyl iodide’s distributor, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Arysta, the largest privately held pesticide company in the world, reportedly fast-tracked the registration process by declaring an “emergency.” DPR’s only stated explanation for the “emergency” was that it wanted to register methyl iodide on Dec. 20.

“DPR created a political ‘emergency’ by insisting on locking-in its decision before a new administration takes office – an administration that would follow the science, instead of catering to the largest private agrochemical corporation in the world,” observed Michael Meuter, who is an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance. “Political convenience does not constitute an emergency.”

At press time, Arysta had not responded to an e-mail requesting comment on the lawsuit, but DPR maintained that the registration was not fast-tracked,

"DPR received the application to register methyl iodide in 2001 and did not make a decision until 2010," the DPR's e-mail said. "DPR's extensive review began in 2007 after receiving all the necessary information.

"The public comment period was 60 days, twice what is legally required."

Environmentalists are hoping that newly installed Gov. Jerry Brown will act quickly to prevent the use of the fumigant in California’s fields.

They also want his administration to look into what alternatives might work.

Although California is the only state that has a coordinated centralized reporting system, few farm workers file complaints about their working conditions, said Brieger.

“There are so many barriers to reporting, including immigration status, language barriers and fear of losing one’s job,” she said.

Hidalgo, who has been working California’s strawberry fields for five years, works the strawberry route in Ventura County in spring, and Monterey and Santa Cruz counties in summer. He makes around $200 a week, a portion of which he sends home to his family in Mexico.

He is among close to one million farm workers in the state, 90 percent of whom are from Mexico, said Meuter.

Hidalgo said that even though he does “stoop labor” with his face close to the soil, he is not given any protective gear.

“On several occasions I have smelled pesticide,” he said. “I have suffered from headaches, sore throat and dizziness.”

Has he ever complained?

“I have never complained; few of us do,” he said. “We just keep working.

“Those who have complained are told by their foreman: ‘If you don’t like it here, go find work somewhere else.’”