RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Considering that over 90% of US strawberries are grown in California, this is a potentially serious national health risk. Strawberries grown in fields gassed with a carcinogenic fumigant will be the norm on supermarket shelves, unless new California governer Jerry Brown reverses the approval of methyl iodide, a highly reactive chemical, pushed through during the last moments of the Schwarzenegger administration. Giving Brown a strong nudge, a group of farm worker and environmental advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Monday against the state of California to challenge the state's approval of the toxic strawberry pesticide. "Everyone agrees, without exception, that methyl iodide is a very toxic compound. It's very reactive. That means it interacts with living tissue in very toxic ways, causing cell damage and damage to cell structures, DNA, or chromosomes," explains Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, science director at Science and Environmental Health Network. "The upshot is it can cause a lot of health effects, including cancer and damage to tissues that are developing. In animal studies, it killed the fetuses of developing animals exposed by inhalation; fetuses were killed at relatively low doses. Nobody doubts it's a nasty chemical."
Dr. Schettler was among 53 doctors and researchers—including National Academy of Sciences and Nobel laureate researchers—who wrote an open letter to the EPA in 2007 urging them to deny federal approval of methyl iodide, the proposed replacement for methyl bromide, a known ozone depleter. In 2007, the scientists warned: "Alkylating agents like methyl iodide are extraordinarily well-known cancer hazards in the chemical community because of their ability to modify the chemist’s own DNA, as well as the target molecule in the flask, leading to mutations that are potentially very harmful." The warning notes that because of this potential toxicity, chemists who work with this material use the smallest amounts possible, and take great precautions to avoid exposure, and adds, "Because of methyl iodide’s high volatility and water solubility, broad use of this chemical in agriculture will guarantee substantial releases to air, surface waters, and groundwater, and will result in exposures for many people."
THE DETAILS: To the dismay of many of the nation's leading chemists, doctors, and toxicology experts, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved methyl iodide for use in agriculture in 2007 during the 11th hour of the Bush administration, in effect trading an ozone destroyer for a cancer causer. The approval made it legal for farmers to inject the gaseous pesticide into fields in most states prior to planting crops like strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and grapes. However, Florida, New York, Washington, and California operate under state-based pesticide registration laws. New York and Washington refused to allow the highly reactive chemical in farming, Florida approved it with the stipulation that the manufacturer must monitor air and water quality, and now California is also allowing the chemical. That's significant because the Golden Gate State produces about 90 percent of the strawberries sold in the United States, and many of its strawberry fields border highly populated areas. "It's not uncommon for people's backyards to be up against fields," explains Tracey Brieger, spokeswoman for Californians for Pesticide Reform. She notes that farm workers applying the fumigant, or working near those fields, face the highest exposure risk, along with neighbors' groundwater.
"The danger here, and what we're worried about is, like any other number of chemicals over the last few years, once there's contamination, even if it's possible to clean up, the cost is immense," says Brieger, who notes that taxpayers will be on the hook to foot the bill. "It's astounding that we're considering poisoning the water that we drink. We're saying, 'Why are we even going down this path?'"