California Sued to Block Strawberry Fumigant Methyl Iodide
SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 5, 2011 (ENS) – A coalition of farmworkers, community advocates and environmental health organizations is suing to challenge California’s approval of the carcinogenic strawberry pesticide methyl iodide.
The lawsuit was filed December 30, 2010, in Alameda Superior Court by Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. The plaintiff groups are: Pesticide Action Network North America, United Farm Workers of America, Californians for Pesticide Reform, Pesticide Watch Education Fund, Worksafe, Communities and Children Advocates Against Pesticide Poisoning as well as farmworkers Jose Hidalgo Ramon and Zeferino Estrada.
Several of the organizations also submitted comments from over 52,000 members of the public urging California Governor Jerry Brown to act quickly to prevent the use of methyl iodide in California’s fields.
“It’s farmworkers like me who become sick,” said Hidalgo. “As a strawberry picker, I have worked near many pesticide applications. First we smell the pesticides. Then our eyes burn, our noses run and our throats hurt. I’m against using methyl iodide because it’s already too dangerous in the fields, we don’t need new, even more dangerous, toxins.”
Demonstrators against methyl iodide at the California capitol building, June 2010. (Photo courtesy Pesticide Watch)
The suit challenges the state Department of Pesticide Regulation’s December 20, 2010 approval of methyl iodide for use in California on the grounds that it violates the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Birth Defects Prevention Act, and the Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act that protects groundwater against pesticide pollution.
In addition, the suit contends that the Department of Pesticide Regulation, DPR, violated the law requiring involvement of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in the development of farmworker safety regulations and made an unlawful finding of emergency with its request for Restricted Materials status for methyl iodide.
“The public has been shocked, wondering how methyl iodide could be approved under California law. The truth is that DPR played too fast and loose with their decision,” said Greg Loarie, attorney with Earthjustice, a public interest environmental law firm. “They exceeded their legal authority and have put the public and farmworkers at great risk of harm.”
Methyl iodide causes late term miscarriages, contaminates groundwater and is so carcinogenic that it is used to create cancer cells in laboratories, the plaintiffs point out. It is included in California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer.
Methyl iodide is marketed as Midas by Arysta LifeScience based in Cary, North Carolina, a global provider of crop protection and life science products that is a subsidiary of The Permira Funds.
The plaintiffs contend that in deciding to approve methyl iodide for use on strawberry fields, DPR ignored the advice of members of the state’s Scientific Review Committee, who have said that the chemical is too dangerous to be used in agriculture.
Upon hearing the decision, Dr. John Froines, chair of the committee and a professor at the UCLA Department of Environmental Health Sciences, told reporters, “I honestly think that this chemical will cause disease and illness. And so does everyone else on the committee.”
Theodore Slotkin, another panel member and professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University, wrote, “It is my personal opinion that this decision will result in serious harm to California citizens, and most especially to children.”
“Farmworkers are on the front lines of methyl iodide use and will suffer the most tragic consequences,” said Erik Nicholson, national vice-president of United Farm Workers. “If this decision is allowed to stand, strawberries may very well become the new poster child for giving farmworkers cancer and late term miscarriages.”
In 2007, U.S. EPA registered methyl iodide, also called iodomethane as a fumigant. Based on its acute inhalation toxicity, U.S. EPA designated methyl iodide as a federally restricted-use pesticide. All but two other states have also registered the chemical.
Injected into soil before crops are planted, the fumigant spreads through the soil to kill weed seeds, plant diseases, and nematodes. It can be applied by drip irrigation under a protective tarpaulin, or injected into the soil using a tractor that automatically places a tarp over the ground after application.
In its “Finding of Emergency” authorizing the use of methyl iodide, the Department of Pesticide Regulation said the new chemical is being phased-in as the ozone-depleting fumigant methyl bromide is being phased out as required by the Montreal Protocol.
“The primary reason is that methyl iodide does not harm the Earth’s ozone layer,” the agency said.
The DPR said its decision to register methyl iodide will allow the users of methyl bromide to begin replacing methyl bromide with methyl iodide, beginning with the 2011 fumigation cycle which in some counties begins in January, and statewide, is in full swing by March.
But the plaintiffs claim that the “emergency” does not exist except to lock in the methyl iodide registration under the administration of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and before Governor Brown took office on January 3.
“We expect Governor Brown to do much better than his predecessor, whose environmental legacy is defined by hypocrisy,” said Paul Towers, state director of Pesticide Watch Education Fund. “Schwarzenegger’s move to promote the elimination of plastic bags but approve – on the very same day – the use of one of the most toxic chemicals on Earth in California’s fields has permanently tarnished his environmental record.”