Toxic Strawberry Fumigant in California Will Endanger Health
Posted December 1, 2010
Today the California Department of Pesticide Reform (DPR) announced that they will allow a highly toxic fumigant, methyl iodide, for use on strawberries in California. This decision flies in the face of DPR's own scientists' findings and ignores the conclusions of a committee of independent university experts that DPR itself convened last year.
Methyl iodide is a gas that will be injected into the soil to kill all living things. As a gas, it's not likely to stay in the soil despite tarps intended to keep it down. According to DPR estimates, significant quantities will escape to be inhaled by workers and nearby residents. The quantities that escape are expected to be high enough to result in significant risks of neurological damage, cancer, and fetal toxicity. Specifically this chemical causes thyroid, lung, brain, urinary and cervical cancers. The mitigation measures proposed by DPR are not projected to reduce the airborne levels sufficiently to protect people.
Methyl iodide isn't just a threat to our air - it also threatens our water supplies. Scientific analyses and DPR's own risk assessment concluded that methyl iodide will break down in the soil to iodide, which will leach into groundwater. In some areas, the quantities are projected to be sufficient to violate regulatory levels for drinking water safety. Iodide in excessive doses can shut down the thyroid gland, which is a particular problem for pregnant women and infants since the thyroid directs normal brain development in infancy. Our water resources in California are precious and we can't afford to lose drinking water aquifers for the sake of strawberry industry profits.
The real irony in all of this is that methyl iodide was theoretically intended to help solve an environmental problem. Another fumigant used in California strawberry production - methyl bromide - is known to deplete the ozone layer and it must be phased-out. For the last few years, the California strawberry industry has been getting exemptions allowing them to use the ozone depleter, and they claim that methyl iodide will solve the problem. But a Sophie's Choice between an ozone depleter and a highly toxic carcinogen is a false choice. After all, a significant fraction of strawberry acreage in California uses neither chemical, and an estimated 1,500 acres of organic strawberries are grown each year with no chemical inputs at all.
It's clear that politics trumped science and health in this lame duck decision. The new Governor will have a chance to review this decision in January. For the health of the people of California, I hope Governor Brown moves swiftly to stop use of this chemical before people get hurt.
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