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'Without a question one of the most toxic chemicals on earth'

Formula for the methyl iodide molecule

They had flown in from across the country to make an accusation in public: California has ignored their warnings about a controversial new pesticide called methyl iodide, a fumigant for strawberry fields recently approved for use by regulators.

"It seemed like everything we had done had come to nothing," said John Froines, a professor of chemistry at UCLA, who testified yesterday in Sacramento at a hearing examining the toxic chemical.

California's Department of Pesticide Regulation said it has evaluated methyl iodide more intensely than any other pesticide in the history of the department, and that it took an unusual step in convening an external peer-review panel: the same scientists who testified in Sacramento.

But in approving methyl iodide – which Froines called "without a question one of the most toxic chemicals on earth" - the state has put farmworkers' health in danger, the scientists testified. They contend stronger safeguards are needed to protect workers in the fields.

The hearing, convened by State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Fresno) and Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Monterey), began with testimony from DPR director Mary-Ann Warmerdam, who said: "There's no question methyl iodide is a highly toxic material."

But managers at the department had concluded that methyl iodide could indeed be used safely. "My obligation is to take the next step to say: can this be mitigated, and can it be mitigated to a point that [exposure levels are] health protective?"

Farmers who use methyl iodide would be required to create buffer zones of 200 feet or more, depending on the number of acres being fumigated. The buffer zone would be extended to a half-mile for schools, hospitals and daycare centers.

Scientists told legislators they are concerned those same safeguards – the buffer zones, heavy tarps, and face mask respirators - could fail, putting workers at risk of cancer, miscarriage, or brain damage.

"Murphy's law could have been written to describe respirators," said Katharine Hammond, a professor of environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley.

Echoing the other scientists, she said that the DPR had altered the scientific findings to come up with allowable exposure levels 120 times what scientists say is safe.

"Distorting the science is not a mitigation method," she said.

The scientists wouldn't have been here at all if not for the problems with another fumigant: methyl bromide. Currently in wide use among California strawberry growers, methyl bromide depletes the ozone layer and is being phased out under the Montreal Protocol.

Flickr photo by Randy BayneSen. Dean Florez

The proposal to switch to methyl iodide, said Florez, puts the state in "an awful position."

"It's save the earth over saving farm workers' lungs and preventing birth defects," he said.  Surely, he asked, wouldn't it be better to stick with methyl bromide a little longer, until the state could come up with a better plan?

"I've asked that myself," said Warmerdam. "And I was told that the [Obama] administration is not interested in [continuing to use methyl bromide]. If that changes, we'd be delighted."

Panel member Ed Loechler, a professor of biology at Boston University, wondered whether the debate over methyl iodide versus methyl bromide wasn't shortsighted.

"It seems like there's a third choice," he said. "Use neither, and make people pay a little more for strawberries."

California Watch contributor Amy Standen is a radio reporter for KQED's QUEST, where she covers science and environmental issues facing Northern California. Listen to her KQED QUEST program about strawberries and worker safety here.

Filed under: Environment, Daily Report


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