California considers registering pesticide linked to cancer

Methyl iodide has been linked to lung, liver, kidney and neurological damage
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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As Roseville residents wandered around the street vendors and farmer’s market stands at Downtown Tuesday Nights, Edwin Lopez passed out free strawberries. Lopez works for Rodriguez Berries and Vegetable Farm in Watsonville. He comes out every week to the small farmer’s market in downtown Roseville, where he usually sells about 20 boxes of conventionally grown strawberries and about five boxes of the organic variety. “We sell more conventional,” Lopez said. “(But) I think organic is better.” He likes organic strawberries more, he said, because they taste good and are healthier. Strawberries ranked third among the 12 foods on which pesticide residues have been most frequently found, according to the Environmental Working Group’s 2010 report “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides.” A single strawberry sample in the study had 13 pesticides detected. The land on which strawberries grow may soon be more heavily contaminated with pesticides, if the state of California registers methyl iodide for use as a fumigant. The pesticide would also be applied to tomato fields, orchards and nurseries and is used to control insects, nematodes, weeds, pathogens and rodents by sterilizing the soil. Critics have spent nearly a year trying to stop its registration — to no avail. “The registration poses severe threats to all Californians, especially farmworkers and neighboring communities,” said Paul Towers, state director of Pesticide Watch, an advocacy group based in Sacramento. “This is a clear case of one company, Arysta Life, exerting undo influence and pushing the registration of a cancer-causing chemical.” Arysta LifeScience Corporation, manufacturers of methyl iodide, say the chemical is safe when used properly and won’t harm people because the pesticide isn’t applied directly to plants or fruit. But an external scientific review panel assembled last September to gauge the risk of methyl iodide concluded that the chemical does, in fact, pose a threat to public health. Methyl iodide has been linked to lung, liver, kidney and neurological damage. Additionally, California’s Proposition 65 lists methyl iodide as a known cancer-causing agent. Scientists sometimes use the chemical to induce cancer cells in laboratory animals. The chemical would replace methyl bromide, an ozone depleter, which the international Montreal Protocol required developed nations to phase out by 2005. The United States, however, argued that it couldn’t find an alternative and was granted an exemption. Fumigants are used in large-scale industrial agriculture to kill soil-borne pests. Field fumigation is rare in Placer County. “There is less need for pesticides to manage strawberry pests because we have fewer species of pests and lower pest populations, partly because we lack the intense cultivation of strawberries as on the Central Coast and farms are scattered throughout the county,” said Cindy Fake of the UC Cooperative Extension for Placer and Nevada Counties. Placer County Agricultural Commissioner Christine Turner said the county has only one certified-organic strawberry grower, who runs a small farm with limited production. Although other local producers may not be certified organic, they use few pesticides and tend to stick to botanical, biological and mineral-based pesticides, Fake said. Meanwhile, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation will make its registration decision following the end of a 60-day public comment period on June 29. “Science should prevail and methyl iodide shouldn’t be allowed for use,” Towers said. “(We want) safe, healthy farms and we already have the tools in our tool belt to do just that.” Dee Lee who helps run his family’s strawberry stand on Hazel Avenue outside Roseville said they’ve been growing without the use of pesticides for a long time. His family is Mien and Southeast Asian growers commonly refrain from using toxic materials in fruit and vegetable production. The family has farmed at this 4-acre field for the last 10 years. “We grow organic because our customers don’t want us to spray,” Lee said. “It’s healthier for people.” Sena Christian can be reached at ---------- If approved for registration, methyl iodide would operate the same as methyl bromide, the current fumigant in use in California. Applicators inject the gas into the soil 12 to 24 inches deep before a crop is planted. The chemical kills most of the soil organisms and thereby sterilizes the soil.