Controversial pesticide approved

Opponents want incoming Gov. Jerry Brown to ban methyl iodide, a fumigant that could be used in Placer County
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Rejecting recommendations by scientists, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation recently approved the use of a controversial pesticide. Now, opponents want incoming Gov. Jerry Brown to reverse this decision and ban the chemical soon after he is sworn into office Jan. 3. They accuse Gov. Schwarzenegger’s administration of allowing corporate pressure to trump science, in the Dec. 1 decision approving registration of methyl iodide, a pesticide linked to lung, liver, kidney and neurological damage. California’s Proposition 65 lists methyl iodide as a known cancer-causing agent. “The decision to permit use of a chemical in the fields that causes cancer, late-term miscarriage and permanent neurological damage is a ticking time bomb,“ said Dr. Susan Kegley, a consulting scientist with Pesticide Action Network, in a press release. “The idea that this pesticide can be used safely is a myth.” A scientific review committee assembled by the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) concluded that the chemical poses a threat to human health. The department said it used information from the scientists’ risk assessment to form its risk management plan. “Their concerns are reflected in DPR’s health-protective use restrictions that include stricter buffer zones, more ground water protections, reduced application rates and stronger worker protections,” said press officer Lea Brooks. As a fumigant, methyl iodide controls pests by sterilizing the soil, and is primarily used on strawberry fields. This means the chemical’s use could be extensive statewide as California’s farmers grow about 90 percent of the strawberries produced in the United States, constituting a $2 billion a year industry. Last year, Placer County farmers only grew about 34 acres of strawberries. In comparison, the county’s top crop, rice, grew on about 15,500 acres, according to the 2009 “Agricultural Crop Production Report.” Fumigants can also be used for walnut orchards, one of the biggest revenue-generating crops in the area. Last year, walnuts grew on 998 acres, with a gross value of $2.6 million. Some worry that methyl iodide, sold under the brand name Midas, could be used locally because it is similar to the soil fumigant Telone, currently one of the main pesticides used in Placer County, said Paul Towers, director of Pesticide Watch, a Sacramento-based group. While more than 200,000 pounds of pesticides were used locally in 2008 — mainly for rice, walnut and plum crops — Placer County Agricultural Commissioner Christine Turner previously told the Press Tribune that field fumigation is rare. One wholesale production nursery accounts for most of the fumigation activity and that field exists in an isolated area with limited residential population nearby, according to the county department of agriculture’s “Pesticide Use Enforcement Work Plan” revised in 2010. Occasionally, a small strawberry farmer will apply methyl bromide — the ozone-depleting fumigant that methyl iodide replaces, according to the report. But opponents say the use of this chemical anywhere poses a problem because it threatens human health and might contaminate ground water. “We simply cannot afford the risks of any pesticides fumigated on the rich products of our region, especially strawberries, nuts, tomatoes or grapes,” Towers said. “And we cannot afford to contaminate fragile water supplies and expose children living near fields to a cancer-causing pesticide.” Those supportive of methyl iodide — namely, its manufacturer, Tokyo-based Arysta LifeScience Corporation — said the fumigant is safe. “Methyl iodide is the most evaluated pesticide in the department’s history,” Brooks said. “DPR’s evaluation determined methyl iodide can be used safely by highly trained applicators at times, places and specific conditions spelled out in its tough restrictions.” But opponents want Gov.-elect Brown to establish policies that promote climate-friendly agriculture and pest management instead of continued reliance on potentially harmful chemicals. “There are safer alternatives to hazardous pesticides,” Towers said. “And farmers across the state are demonstrating that healthy food can be grown without toxic pesticides.” Sena Christian can be reached at