Is the State Going to Replace One Awful Pesticide with an Even Worse One?
The whole world knows that the fumigant methyl bromide is a nasty chemical with terrible consequences for the planet’s ozone layer that farmers ought not to use as a pesticide. An international agreement led to its phase-out by 2005 most everywhere except California, where strawberry farmers are rather fond of it.
Methyl bromide has been linked to birth defects, prostate cancer and other health problems. And low birth rates are associated with a host of problems developed later in life. So, in response to public demand that a safer substitute be found, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) chose methyl iodide in 2010, despite widespread opposition from scientists, environmentalists and farmworker groups.
John Froines, a professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA who chaired the peer review committee that gave input to the department before its decision, was not happy. The group recommended a maximum exposure of .8 parts per billion for farmworkers but the department set an exposure level 120 times higher. Froines said at the time, “I honestly think that this chemical will cause disease and illness. And so does everyone else on the committee.”
A lawsuit (pdf) was filed in Alameda County Superior Court in December 2010, challenging the department’s decision. Memos released in the course of the lawsuit included allegations that DPR management “mixed and matched” data that were “not interchangeable” to get the risk-assessment they wanted.
Three months after the lawsuit was filed, DPR Director Mary-Ann Warmerdam, a Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointee, left to take a job at Clorox. In March 2012, the manufacturer of methyl iodide products pulled them from the market in anticipation of an adverse court ruling and California went looking for a substitute.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had approved methyl iodide in 2007, but reached an agreement with the company that produced it to halt its use as of January 2013.
A new study, conducted by UCLA's Sustainable Technology and Policy Program and headed by Froines, raises significant questions about how DPR conducted itself. The report, “Risk and Decision: Evaluating Pesticide Approval in California (pdf),” didn’t find out anything about methyl iodide that wasn’t already on the record. It is a carcinogen known to cause lasting neurological damage. The chemical has been show to cause fetal damage at low doses and can induce psychiatric symptoms in adults that resemble Parkinson’s disease.
What the new study focused on was the DPR’s process for evaluating and approving pesticides, which it found to be flawed, and in the case of methyl iodide, a failure.
Froines damned the department with faint praise—he called the department’s efforts “laudable” —before noting that its evaluation of methyl iodide included “data gaps, narrow framing of the scientific issues and unrealistic assumptions regarding exposures.”
So methyl iodide is out. And methyl bromide is on the way out. Organic solutions aren’t being given any serious consideration by the powers that be, which begs the question: What’s next?
Although California Strawberry Commission Communications Director Carolyn O’Donnell says her organization isn’t prepared to back any of the fumigants currently in the pipeline, chloropicrin is getting a lot of attention.
In August, the DPR released proposed control measures, which were lauded on the Western Growers website: “Chloropicrin has been safely used for more than 50 years and it is a critical component in the growing of healthy California crops. It protects billions of dollars of crops which in turn provide thousands of farm jobs.”
Paul Towers, organizing director for Pesticide Action Network, calls it “methyl iodide 2.0.”