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EPA enters debate over toxic strawberry fumigant

Flickr photo by Kristen Taylor

The Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing scientific assessments of a controversial strawberry fumigant scheduled for use in California, as well as opening up a public comment period on the toxic pesticide, according to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the environmental law group Earthjustice.

This could have implications in California, where the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation is expected to approve the fumigant, methyl iodide, later this year, amid concerns that it could be toxic to farmworkers and people who live near agricultural fields.

In an interview last week, Feinstein said she had asked the EPA to look into methyl iodide after learning about the 120-fold difference between exposure levels deemed safe by the DPR, and the levels deemed safe by the agency's own staff scientists, as well as by a panel of outside scientists commissioned by the state.

"My letter," said Feinstein, "was to say, 'EPA, can you take another look at this, in view of this other testimony? Because the scientific data here is so very different.'"

The EPA later told Feinstein it would open a review of California's differing scientific assessments of the fumigant.

Methyl iodide is considered critical to California's $2 billion strawberry industry. Currently growers use a fumigant called methyl bromide, which is being phased out under international treaty because it damages the ozone layer.

The EPA approved methyl iodide in 2007. Both Feinstein and Earthjustice have requested formal reconsideration of that approval. However, the EPA's announcement falls short of that. Earthjustice's Paul Towers says he hopes the public comment period is the first step toward reconsideration, "and that when the federal government reviews this, they'll come to the right decision."

EPA spokesman Dale Kemery declined to say whether reconsideration was on the table or not.

Lea Brooks, DPR spokeswoman, noted that the EPA's approved exposure levels are more than twice as high as what California is proposing. "California's proposed restrictions are much more health-protective than U.S. EPA's," she said in an e-mail.

If the EPA decides to limit the use of methyl iodide, California growers could be unaffected, since the state's restrictions are more stringent than the EPA's. However, if the agency ultimately decides to revoke its approval of the pesticide, California officials would have to follow suit.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Fresno, who held a hearing on methyl iodide in June, has introduced a provision into state budget negotiations that would postpone methyl iodide's registration by a year and require further review. The provision has met opposition from Republicans, and awaits approval by the Legislature.



Filed under: Environment, Daily Report


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