Methyl iodide safety debate gasps on.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Residents of Moss Landing Heights used to peacefully coexist with the artichoke farm across the street from their subdivision. The occasional dust and noise was a small price to pay to live in such a tight-knit, friendly neighborhood. But then the farmer decided to grow strawberries, which meant potentially fumigating the soil.
“We saw fumigants as a whole different ball game,” said resident Marilyn Lynds.
An international protocol is phasing out common strawberry fumigant methyl bromide, an ozone depleter. But what may have initially been good news for the Moss Landing community has turned into another headache, as the state of California considers registering methyl iodide to replace methyl bromide.
While methyl iodide doesn’t deplete the ozone, it may pose more danger to human health and the environment than its predecessor. Farmworkers and rural residents could be most at risk.
The state Department of Pesticide Regulation held an external scientific review workshop last week, as it weighs the pesticide’s fate in California. Under the Bush Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency registered the chemical for use. Forty-seven states have followed suit.
Methyl iodide would be applied to strawberry fields, tomato fields, nurseries and orchards to control insects, nematodes, weeds, pathogens and rodents. Applicators inject the gas into the ground before a crop is planted; the chemical sterilizes the land by killing most soil organisms.
Advocacy groups say breathing the toxic fumes released by methyl iodide can cause lung, liver, kidney and neurological damage. Proposition 65 lists methyl iodide as a known cancer-causing agent; studies also show its potential to contaminate groundwater.
“One false move and this pesticide could result in permanent damage,” said Pesticide Watch organizer Elsa Dooling.
In Monterey County, the pesticide would be applied to some of the region’s 10,000 acres of strawberry fields, according to county Assistant Agricultural Commissioner Bob Roach. Last year, roughly 6,800 acres of strawberry fields were fumigated with methyl bromide and chloropicrin (an exposure warning agent that causes burning in the eyes).
The Agricultural Commissioner’s Office hasn’t taken a position on methyl iodide, instead opting to wait and see.
“We think DPR should be applauded for the amount of diligence they’re giving this consideration,” Roach said. “From a pest-and-disease-management standpoint, it’s always good to have more options at your disposal.”
But for residents of Moss Landing Heights, fighting methyl bromide has been enough of a struggle .
This August, residents won a lawsuit against DPR for failing to adequately protect public health. Now, Lynds and her neighbors direct their efforts to fighting methyl iodide registration.
“No one in my community is anti-farm or patently anti-pesticide. It is simply a matter of fairness,” Lynds said during last week’s scientific workshop. “Pest companies make a profit, and children, communities, field workers and the environment pay the price.”