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PetSmart selling unregistered pesticide products despite state order

About two months after the state’s environmental agency ordered a major pet products retailer to immediately cease selling unregistered pesticide products, many of those products remain on the retailer’s shelves and website.

“It’s illegal to sell a product that makes pesticidal claims in California unless it has been registered by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Pesticide Regulation,” said Lea Brooks, a spokeswoman for California’s Environmental Protection Agency and its Department of Pesticide Regulation.

In September, the pesticide department fined Phoenix-based PetSmart nearly $400,000 for selling 33 unregistered pesticide products [PDF] to California consumers. The products ranged from dog and cat shampoos to reptile cage liners. Once a product is registered, the state can evaluate it for toxins, which could be transferred from animals to humans.

The state's requirement applies to retailers, not product manufacturers. According to Brooks, the retailer is responsible for the products it sells on its shelves. 

 

If a manufacturer is making pesticidal clams, the product must be registered with the state and federal government, or the pesticidal claim must be removed from the labeling, which includes marketing material, Brooks said.

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Fumigant maker pulled disputed product facing court defeat

When Arysta LifeScience abruptly pulled methyl iodide off the market this week, it cited the “economic viability” of the controversial fumigant, which is used to sterilize soil before crops are planted.

But at a hearing in an Oakland courtroom Wednesday, another factor emerged: Arysta was on the verge of losing a major lawsuit.

California regulators approved methyl iodide in December 2010, in the final days of the Schwarzenegger administration. They did so over the objections of state scientists, who said trace amounts of the chemical would put farm workers and agricultural communities at risk of cancer, miscarriage or birth defects.

Farmers rely on fumigants to support the state’s $2.3 billion strawberry industry but have struggled to find environmentally safe products.

 

Immediately after California approved methyl iodide, environmental and farm-worker groups sued the state, arguing that regulators broke the law in approving the chemical. The opening hearing took place last month. 

But before the court could issue its opinion, attorneys for Arysta requested another hearing, to take place Wednesday. New details had emerged, they said, that would affect the case.

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Judge to rule on lawsuit challenging pesticide approval

The lawsuit over California's approval of a controversial pesticide might hinge on a seemingly straightforward question: Did regulators ever ask themselves what would happen if they didn't approve methyl iodide?

In an Oakland courtroom yesterday, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch presided over a one-day trial about methyl iodide, a fumigant approved by state regulators in December 2010.

Environmental and farm worker groups sued the state, along with chemical manufacturer Arysta LifeScience, in January 2011, contending that the chemical puts farm workers at risk of cancer or miscarriage. They said the state used bad science in approving methyl iodide and ignored the concerns of its own scientific advisers.

 

Earthjustice's Greg Loarie, representing the plaintiffs, came to the courtroom armed with diagrams and spreadsheets, geared up to give a technical brief on finer points of pharmacokinetic and uncertainty factors, iodide absorption rates, and other toxicological issues. His goal was to prove that the state had cherry-picked its data and methods in order to arrive at a conclusion amenable to the chemical company, Arysta.

But the judge quickly seized on a different point.

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Farmers slow to adopt controversial pesticide

A year after environmentalists lost a regulatory battle to keep the controversial pesticide methyl iodide off the California market, they appear to be winning the ground war against the chemical.

Only six California growers have used methyl iodide – marketed as MIDAS – to zap soil-borne pests and weeds before planting crops like chili peppers, strawberries and walnut trees.

Methyl iodide manufacturer Arysta LifeScience Corp. paid for at least two of the fumigations. The company shared in the cost of a third, according to the grower.

By way of comparison, more than 8,500 soil fumigations took place in California in 2009, the last year for which data is available from the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation.

“Methyl iodide is a speck on the horizon,” said Les Wright, Fresno County deputy agricultural commissioner.

 

Growers and agriculture industry groups clamored for methyl iodide registration last year before the Department of Pesticide Regulation gave the chemical its final approval.

They pointed to the coming ban on methyl bromide, one of the most effective and widely used fumigants in the state, and argued that without methyl iodide, California’s billion-dollar agriculture industry would hemorrhage jobs and profits. Methyl bromide is being phased out under the Montreal Protocol; it’s expected to be eliminated altogether by 2015.

Every year, however, the Montreal Protocol grants critical-use exemptions for growers who don’t have alternatives to methyl bromide. Methyl bromide is costly because of dwindling supplies, so many growers are also using other chemicals.

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Banned berry pesticide still commonly used

In some of California’s top strawberry-growing counties, levels of banned methyl bromide remain nearly as high as they were a decade ago, despite a mandated phaseout, according to an analysis by New America Media.

The fumigant was supposed to have been phased out completely by 2005, under a global pact to halt the thinning of the earth’s protective ozone layer. But in 2009, the latest year for which data is available, more than 5 million pounds of the pesticide were still in use, down just 50 percent from 2000.

A limited amount of methyl bromide is allowed in instances in which no alternative exists, through a “critical use exemption,” determined by treaty members in a three-year process and administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Strawberry growers in California are among the groups that can apply for an exemption.

 

As a result, in a handful of the state’s highest strawberry production areas, methyl bromide is nearly as ubiquitous as it was in 1999, indicating that not all communities in the state are benefiting similarly from the phaseout.

An analysis of state pesticide use data revealed that in Monterey County, the state’s main strawberry production area, methyl bromide use has fallen only 24 percent over the decade, from roughly 1.7 million pounds in 1999 to 1.3 million pounds in 2009.

Adjacent Santa Cruz County, another top strawberry-producing region, saw a similar percentage drop in use, to about 400,000 pounds from 564,000 pounds in 1999. San Luis Obispo County actually saw an uptick, to roughly 125,000 pounds in 2009 from 110,000 pounds a decade earlier.

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State scientists ignored in pesticide's approval

California’s former top pesticide regulatory official dismissed safety guidelines suggested by her own staff scientists on the grounds that they were "excessive" and too onerous for the pesticide manufacturer, recently released internal documents show.

In response, the scientists lodged a formal protest, calling the official’s actions “not scientifically credible,” according to the documents released by court order last week. 

The documents amount to a “smoking gun,” says Paul Blanc, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at UC San Francisco. Last year, Blanc helped advise the staff scientists on their evaluation of the pesticide, methyl iodide.

“The decision by the regulatory superiors was not science-based," Blanc said.

In one of the documents, Mary-Ann Warmerdam, who led the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation until this year, weighs a recommendation from her staff that farm workers be exposed to no more than a trace amount of methyl iodide per day. The recommendation – intended to protect farm workers from cancer and miscarriage – is "excessive and difficult to enforce," Warmerdam wrote in April 2010, about two weeks before the department made its recommendation that California approve methyl iodide. If the restrictions on methyl iodide were approved, she wrote, the pesticide manufacturer might find the recommendations "unacceptable, due to economic viability."

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Apples top list of pesticide-laden produce

Hopefully, you’re a fan of onions, corn and pineapple – and not so sweet on apples, celery and strawberries.

That’s because the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, released its annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

According to its research, apples, celery and strawberries are covered with toxic pesticides, while onions, corn and pineapple are pretty clean.

The group ranked 53 fruits and vegetables using pesticide analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration between 2000 and 2009.

The result: the "Dirty Dozen" and the "Clean 15." [PDF]

“Kids are eating a lot of pesticides, and parents using the guide can steer away from these foods,” Sonya Lunder, senior analyst with the group, told Greenwire, an environmental news wire service. “There is a need to be really careful and cautious when you’re pregnant and when you’re feeding children. During these times, pesticides can have major health effects.”

This is the seventh annual report released by the group on produce pesticide residue.

According to the executive summary of the report, pesticides were found on 98 percent of more than 700 apples tested, and 92 percent of apples had more than one type of pesticide residue.

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Children conceived in March more likely to have autism, researchers say

Researchers from UC Davis determined that California babies conceived in March had a significantly higher rate of autism, perhaps adding to a body of research that links spring and summer pesticide exposure to birth defects.

The report, which was published in the journal Epidemiology, found that children conceived in March have a 16 percent greater chance of being diagnosed with autism than children conceived in July. Researchers reviewed birth records for 7 million children born in California between 1990 and 2002.

The findings are a "starting point for further inquiry" into whether there is a connection between the increased autism incidence and additional exposure to pesticides that comes with spring and early summer planting, the report says. If such a connection is made, it would align with other studies showing that babies conceived in the spring have a higher rate of birth defects, such as Down syndrome and spina bifida.

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EPA opens public comment period on strawberry pesticide

Last Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened a 30-day public comment period on the controversial strawberry pesticide methyl iodide.

The move comes in response to a year-old request from the environmental law group Earthjustice, along with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Both asked the EPA to re-consider its 2007 approval of methyl iodide, which is used to fumigate soil before planting.

While farmers in other states have had access to methyl iodide since 2007, California has its own review process. In late December, the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation approved methyl iodide, calling it “the most evaluated pesticide in the department's history."

Methyl iodide is intended to replace methyl bromide, which is being phased out under the Montreal Protocol because it damages the ozone layer. California’s strawberry growers, who would be the state’s primary consumers of methyl iodide, say the chemical is critical to their $2 billion industry.

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State approves pesticide despite cancer warning

Over objections from its own scientific advisers, the Schwarzenegger administration yesterday issued its final approval of a highly toxic pesticide that conventional strawberry growers say is critical to their $2 billion industry.

Speaking in a conference call to reporters, Mary-Ann Warmerdam, whom Schwarzenegger appointed in 2004 to direct the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation, said that "methyl iodide is the most evaluated pesticide in the department's history."

That evaluation process included the appointment of a panel of scientists hand-picked from universities and research institutions across the country. Known as the Scientific Review Committee, its job was to help the regulation department consider how toxic methyl iodide might be to farm workers and people who live near strawberry fields.

Arguably, no one is more steeped in the science of methyl iodide and its potential health effects than these eight scientists. And every member of the panel had strenuously objected to the pesticide's approval.

"It is my personal opinion that this decision will result in serious harm to California citizens, and most especially to children," wrote panel member Theodore Slotkin, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University, in an e-mail yesterday.

His statement echoed those from the seven other scientists on the panel, who began publicly criticizing Warmerdam back in April when the DPR announced its initial plans to let California growers use methyl iodide in their fields.

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