The Midas Touch, The Midas Effect
The controversial fumigant methyl iodide may soon be applied to local fields, despite dire warnings from some of the best scientific minds in the country.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
If politics make for great live theater, then a Feb. 22 hearing held in Sacramento about the controversial strawberry fumigant methyl iodide might have been scripted by Franz Kafka. And much like a Kafka tale, there are stories behind stories.
The characters include a state pesticide department that ignored its own scientists’ warnings; the department’s hired expert and his band of scientific brothers whom methyl iodide’s manufacturer claims went rogue and exceeded the scope of their established mission; a produce industry worth billions of dollars to the state economy; and the private-equity backed maker of the product they call MIDAS, whose company tagline reads “Bold, Agile and Customer Driven.”
More specifically, the characters are:
The state Department of Pesticide Regulation (headed by former California Farm Bureau Federation executive Mary-Ann Warmerdam), which last December approved methyl iodide’s registration in California, paving the way for pesticide applicators to seek permits to fumigate strawberry fields with the substance.
DPR hired gun, scientist John Froines, a bona fide member of the Chicago Seven turned Yale chemistry Ph.D. Now a professor of environmental health at UCLA, Froines was paid by the DPR to lead a scientific review of methyl iodide. During the Sacramento hearing, his simple statements – “Science was subverted” in the approval process and “there is no safe level of release” when it comes to the fumigant – had jaws dropping.
The California Strawberry Commission, whose public policy director Rick Tomlinson says it’s fumigation, subsidies or die: He catalogued the non-fumigant alternatives – including breeding for pest resistance, steam treating the soil, manure and even soil-less farming (using peat) – along with reasons none of these alternatives would work.
There were the off-stage characters, Lori Lim and Ruby Reed – two scientists from the DPR who said the use of methyl iodide poses significant health risks to the public and who quit the department after methyl iodide was approved. Reed could not be located for comment and Lim, now at the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, told the Weekly through an intermediary she would not talk about methyl iodide.
In the background, watching the hearing either in the chamber or on a live feed, were the folks from Arysta LifeSciences North America, the North Carolina-based maker of MIDAS. They don’t want to talk about the money, they won’t say where the product is manufactured, and the route on which it will be shipped, by rail, is secret too. By their account, John Froines went rogue, exceeded the scope of his authority and just thinks he’s smarter than those jurisdictions that say MIDAS is perfectly safe.
And Arysta officials say in just a few short months, starting in about May, pesticide companies will begin seeking the first permits in California for those growers who want to apply MIDAS to their fields. The Monterey County Agricultural Commission has not yet received permit requests for MIDAS, perhaps because growers are clinging to methyl bromide, or because soil bed preparation season doesn’t begin for a few months – or because it will take years until growers are willing to make the investment. But when the time comes, “We’re certainly ready to consider any applications for permits that we receive,” says Assistant Agricultural Commissioner Bob Roach.
“[THE EPA HAS] NO DATA ON HOW THIS CHEMICAL WOULD DAMAGE A DEVELOPING FETUS. THEY HAVE THE AUTHORITY TO CALL IN THIS DATA, BUT THEY DIDN’T.”
Here is the story of how the state of California came to approve the registration of MIDAS and brought us closer to the start of a strawberry season that could see pesticide companies applying it to the profitable growing fields of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties – despite the fact that some researchers use methyl iodide in their labs for the sole purpose of inducing cancer in cells.
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Strawberries are considered a “high value” crop – expensive to put in the ground, but potentially lucrative if the season goes right. A source familiar with the strawberry industry says a good grower – think those that grow for the well-known Driscoll or the more secretive, closely held Well-Pict – can produce about 7,000 boxes an acre, and profit anywhere from 50 cents to $1 per box.
Strawberries in California are a $2.1 billion industry, and growers in the Salinas and Watsonville areas produced 41 percent of the state’s strawberries in 2010.
Growers long have relied on the fumigant methyl bromide as a “preplant” soil fumigant, and as a quarantine and pre-shipment fumigant to prevent the export of native pests. It’s also being phased out as a result of the international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol because it depletes the ozone layer. That set the industry in search of alternatives.
That’s where methyl iodide comes in.
UC Riverside plant pathology professor Jim Sims researched the potential use of methyl iodide as a fumigant for 20 years, and eventually patented the manufacturing process. The UC Regents own the patent, UC Riverside manages it and licensed it to Arysta.
The company won’t say how much it pays for the patent, other than to describe it as “an annual fee.” Arysta’s business development manager Jeff Tweedy says the company has spent about $20 million getting MIDAS registered in various places, including California and Florida.
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Methyl iodide’s scientific origins come with no small amount of irony because, amid the controversy as to whether it is safe for use, one community stands in almost unanimous opposition: scientists – including those like Froines who have been asked to investigate it.
Methyl iodide is a compound known as an akylating agent, which means that it is damaging to DNA, the effect of which can lead to cancer as well as harm the development of a human fetus, among other things.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved it in 2007 for use as an agricultural fumigant, response among scientists was rapid. Robert Bergman, the Gerald E.K. Branch distinguished professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley, drafted a letter with his friend, the Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann, a chemistry professor at Cornell University in New York.
The scientists outlined the potential dangers of methyl iodide to farmworkers and the general community, and asked the EPA to reconsider its approval. In a matter of days, Bergman garnered signatures from 52 more scientists, four of whom are Nobel laureates; the letter is now known as “The Letter of 54.”
“When I heard that it was going to be used as a pesticide, that large amounts were going to be put into the environment, I had to do something,” Bergman says.
The EPA did not rescind the approval, and scientists have since been in the department’s face in a fight where, while the facts seem to be on their side, reality exists in an alternate universe. According to Arysta’s Tweedy, when The Letter of 54 was first sent to the EPA, the EPA immediately asked each scientist to prove that methyl iodide was as dangerous as the scientists were claiming.
There was no proof forthcoming, Tweedy says.
The EPA’s letter to Bergman, though, tells a different story. In short, rather than asking for proof of its danger, the EPA responded with a long justification about why it was OK to use methyl iodide.
“No one, including the EPA and Arysta, have ever claimed that the material is not a poison; they just claim that their stringent procedures will keep it from poisoning people,” Bergman says. “Big difference.”
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The thought that methyl iodide can be used is in some ways built on a narrative, a tale that assumes there will be no accidental releases, ever, and that a single day of training for pesticide applicators will be enough to ensure their safety.
In this tale, the tarps that are supposed to remain on the ground treated with MIDAS for two weeks after fumigation will never rip. No strong winds will ever come along and blow those tarps away. None of the chemical off-gassing from the ground will ever be blown in a single direction – toward, say, a neighborhood or busy road.
Susan Kegley, CEO of the Pesticide Research Institute and consulting scientist for the Pesticide Action Network North America, or PANNA, says the EPA tests assumed methyl iodide off-gasses equally in all directions. “Their science was not given any support from the scientific review committee,” Kegley says. “[The committee] basically shredded everything they had done.”
SOME RESEARCHERS USE METHYL IODIDE IN THEIR LABS FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE OF INDUCING CANCER IN MICE.
And though numerous lab studies have shown that methyl iodide exposure kills fetuses in rabbits, the EPA’s study, according to Ted Schettler, a toxicologist and co-author of several books, including Generations at Risk: Reproductive Health and the Environment, focuses mainly on methyl iodide’s effect on the thyroid, given the well-known role that iodine plays in thyroid function. “There are at least four other mechanisms by which methyl iodide can damage a baby’s brain other than its effect on the thyroid, and they haven’t been studied,” Schettler says. “It’s a real deficiency in the data set. [The EPA has] no data on how this chemical would damage a developing fetus. They have the authority to call in this data, but they didn’t.”
Representatives from the EPA responded to questions from the Weekly that their review was “rigorous,” and amounted to “one of the most thorough analyses ever completed by the EPA for a pesticide registration.”
What is known about methyl iodide is daunting: It is approximately four times more neurotoxic than methyl bromide, it is a known carcinogen and it’s on the California Prop. 65 list of developmental toxicants. It has been shown to cause developmental toxicity at doses eight times lower than methyl bromide.
How exactly methyl iodide could affect farmworkers and surrounding communities may, however, be hard to pin down.
“There are a lot of possibilities in between a dead fetus and a healthy one,” Kegley says. She also notes some of the potential damage might not be visible, like lowered IQs. The first and most noticeable effect that would probably be seen locally, she adds, would be a spike in thyroid disease.
Kathleen Collins, a UC Berkeley molecular biologist who spoke about methyl iodide in front of the California state legislature in 2009, says disposing of methyl iodide in her lab would cost her thousands of dollars. At Cal, methyl iodide is classified as a “zero-release,” Class C compound, which means that no amount is allowed to go down the drain. “This is in contrast to hundreds of other chemicals we can dilute. People near farms will have to be near it, but I have to pay to dispose of it.”
Even if drift can be minimized, groundwater contamination is also a major concern with methyl iodide usage, and though state regulators insist protective measures will be extensive, scientists are skeptical. “There’s no way to protect groundwater except not to use it,” Kegley says.
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Growers aren’t scrambling to embrace methyl iodide, either. Despite Arysta’s claim that MIDAS is the “next-generation soil fumigant,” and claims from the Strawberry Commission that strawberries will have to be subsidized, a la corn, if they can’t use MIDAS, some say it won’t be the silver bullet methyl bromide was. It also may carry a cost-prohibitive price tag.
Miguel Ramos has been farming strawberries in Watsonville for nearly 30 years, and doing pretty well at it. According to Arysta, who directed the Weekly to Ramos as a grower who has tested MIDAS on a small number of acres during the product’s research phase, Ramos produces about 35 tons of strawberries per season on his 40 acres.
But Ramos says that after the effects of the last application of methyl bromide to his fields wear off in four to five years, he will seriously consider retiring early. When it comes to using methyl iodide, the state has imposed too many restrictions. “Where I farm I cannot use methyl iodide,” he says. “They have buffer zones of one-quarter mile to sensitive sites, and I’m surrounded by sensitive sites.” It leaves him with the same question he had when he heard methyl bromide was being taken off the market: “How am I going to be able to farm?”
Strawberries aren’t the only problem, though. Many strawberry growers rotate their crops with lettuce and broccoli growers. Without methyl bromide, not only strawberries will suffer. “You’re talking about the ability to farm our area,” says Edward Ortega, former president of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau and a long-time strawberry grower in the Pajaro Valley.
And then there’s the cost.
The projections for the material cost of methyl iodide are approximate, as Arysta does not publish a price list, and would not release pricing information to the Weekly. Arysta’s Tweedy, when asked about a rumored per acre cost of about $2,500 to $3,000, nods. “That’s a reasonable number,” he says.
Trical, Hollister-based pesticide applicators that cover most of the region, also would not share specific numbers, but speculate MIDAS will be competitive with methyl bromide. The question, though: Is that the price of methyl bromide before the ban, or current, post-ban prices when supplies began to dwindle and costs shot up?
Dr. Steven Fennimore, a Salinas-based extension specialist with UC Davis says, “I don’t expect to have widespread use [of methyl iodide] at all, simply because of the resistance and the high cost.” While it’s too early to predict exactly how the per-acre expense compares, Fennimore and his colleagues have preliminary calculations that applying MIDAS will cost up to a whopping $4,800 per acre, compared to the already high-end methyl bromide at $3,000 to $3,500 per acre – the price applicators began charging in recent years as supplies dipped and the sunset on bromide’s use neared.
Without methyl bromide, and only ineffective or high-cost alternatives to date, farmers are bracing for the worst. “Growers are scared to death,” Fennimore says.
Even as MIDAS has been registered in Florida since 2008, some question the product’s effectiveness. In test plots, University of Florida nematologist Joe Noling has observed poor performance. “It didn’t really do a very good job against a number of different weed pests, and even nematode pests,” he says.
Noling says Arysta has been doling out MIDAS for well below market value, “just to get growers to trial it.” Still, “MIDAS is a cost that I don’t know that they can afford or have even trialled to any extent. I’m willing to bet that there aren’t 10 acres in Florida that are treated with MIDAS.”
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Growers, though, aren’t the only ones scared to death. It’s a given that pesticides are dangerous, even according to DPR: “Because they are intended to control a wide range of pests, fumigants are highly toxic.”
The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board also weighed in against registering methyl iodide, citing fears of drinking water contamination. For the same reasons methyl iodide is an ozone-friendly substitute for methyl bromide – it doesn’t gas off, or volatize, as readily – its residence time in soil is expected to be about five times higher. The water board, citing DPR’s own studies, predicts “groundwater contamination by the iodide metabolite in susceptible soils that might contribute to drinking water exposure,” in a 2010 letter submitted to DPR.
At the hearing last month before the California Assembly Committees on Health and Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, Tom Howard, the executive director of the state Water Resources Control Board, said yet-unpublished findings in Florida would reveal whether methyl iodide is indeed a groundwater contaminant. “I’m told that they did find iodide in shallow groundwater,” he said.
Froines, the lead scientist commissioned by DPR to review its risk assessment, states firmly that there is no safe level for methyl iodide. Testifying at the Feb. 22 hearing, Froines told lawmakers, “There is no question that methyl iodide is profoundly toxic.”
Froines chaired the eight-person scientific committee that peer reviewed DPR staff’s risk assessment. Though not required by law, DPR “chose to conduct a risk assessment because numerous animal studies showed it posed a potential risk to public health,” says Lea Brooks, DPR spokesperson. DPR then contracted with Froines for “an independent, objective peer review to affirm the high quality of science used in the risk assessment.”
And Froines thinks highly of the quality of that science. In a 2010 letter to the agency, he wrote, “DPR has taken a highly appropriate public health protective approach throughout this assessment.”
“WE DON’T COME TO THE BAT [AGAINST] OF EVERY PESTICIDE. WE’RE INVOLVED IN THIS ONE BECAUSE SCIENTISTS ARE SAYING THIS IS ONE OF MOST TOXIC CHEMICALS ON EARTH.”
Ruby Reed and Lori Lim, the DPR scientists who wrote the agency’s 203-page risk assessment and subsequently quit their jobs, presented their findings in September 2009. They concluded their PowerPoint presentation advising, “Proposed use of [methyl iodide] in field fumigation results in significant health risks for workers and the general population.”
Their science, Froines maintains, was of a high caliber, but when DPR issued its rules, “Our scientific input was largely ignored.”
Based on the scientific review committee and DPR’s findings, the highest recommended safe exposure to methyl iodide is .30 parts per billion for neighboring residents. But DPR, in writing the label and setting buffers and maximum concentrations that can be applied to fields, exceeded that exposure recommendation a hundredfold, using 32 ppb. (This is still five times less than EPA’s allowable exposure of 150 ppb.)
After reviewing a risk assessment, DPR crafted a risk management plan to mitigate negative environmental and health effects. In the case of methyl iodide, Froines says assuming mitigation factors like tarps, protective gear and buffer zones will protect public health “is fanciful and even ludicrous.”
Froines did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. But Scientific Review Committee member Dr. Paul Blanc, chief of the division of occupational and environmental medicine at UC San Francisco, says there’s no way the committee overstepped its bounds.
“During our deliberations, there was no sense from the DPR that they were anything but wholly satisfied with our diligence and approach,” Blanc says.
“There did not seem to be any substantive gap in the views and recommendations of the SRC and the scientific staff of the DPR. It was only after the fact that administrators within DPR decided to alter our risk estimates.”
According to Brooks, routine procedure was followed when it came to accepting the SRC’s input: “Peer reviewers were asked only to review scientific and technical matters, leaving policy determinations for DPR. There is never an obligation or even expectation that, as a result of a peer review, all recommended changes will be made.”
The model DPR decided to apply, says Blanc, is “essentially playing Russian roulette with the children of California when it comes to methyl iodide.”
Sentiments about methyl iodide are so strong that Kathryn Gilje, PANNA director, has made the fight against the chemical one of the primary focuses of the organization.
“We don’t come to the bat [against] every pesticide,” she says. “There’s more than a thousand of them. We’re involved in this one because scientists, many of whom are Nobel laureates, are saying this is one of most toxic chemicals on earth.”
The story seems to be entering its third act – and pending litigation could provide an alternate ending. California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. and Earthjustice filed suit against DPR on the grounds that registering methyl iodide violates the California Environmental Quality Act, California Birth Defects Prevention Act, and Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act. The suit, filed Dec. 30, 2010, also contends that DPR violated the law requiring involvement of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in developing farmworker safety regulations and made an unlawful ﬁnding of emergency with its request for Restricted Materials status for methyl iodide.
But if the story continues as Arysta expects, and pesticide applicators begin seeking permits to apply methyl iodide in California within the next few months, Collins, the UC Berkeley molecular biologist, suggests a most succinct ending.
Asked how she would react if she lived near a field in Monterey County where MIDAS was being applied, she says: “I would move.”