“So scientists like myself – and I’m not the only one – don’t have to think very hard to just see in the published literature, this [Methyl Iodide] is a pretty strong toxin. And so, when it got approved, we were all kind of shocked.” Kathy Collins, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of California-Berkeley
While all pesticides are designed to harm living things, there are some that are considered more dangerous than others. One of those pesticides is the controversial chemical methyl iodide, which has been used in strawberry fields in California since 2010. Many environmental groups and health professionals warned state regulators about the dangers of methyl iodide before it was approved at the end of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term; they were ignored. The state’s own scientific advisors, as well as an independent panel of scientists, warned that the chemical can cause cancer, among other dangerous health effects. Now these groups, and others such as EarthJustice, are asking Alameda County Superior Court to put an end to its use.
Methyl iodide replaced methyl bromide, a fumigant, which was found to deplete the ozone layer. Even though a lot of scientific literature exists showing the negative health consequences of methyl iodide, the product was approved without following California’s own rigid regulatory process. The California Environmental Quality Act would have required alternative options to be presented before approving the chemical. With the pressure of the governor’s term ending and the fact that California’s strawberry fields are a $1.6 billion dollar industry, providing perhaps the biggest market for methyl iodide, the chemical was approved.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch has given the state attorneys one week to draft a brief to persuade him that the Department of Pesticide Regulation is not required to follow the California Environmental Quality Act, which would have allowed them to propose methyl iodide as an option without providing an alternative option. Earthjustice lawyers will then have a week to respond. The ruling will likely not be based on the mountain of scientific data showing the dangers of methyl iodide on human health, but rather it will likely be based on a process technicality. In this case, that means including alternatives to methyl iodide or proposing to approve the chemical at more conservative exposure levels. The judge will issue a final ruling on whether the state violated California law sometime in February.
Methyl iodide’s health risks are nothing to be silent about: the chemical poses the most direct risks to farmworkers and those individuals in the surrounding communities because of the amount applied, its consistency, and its tendency to drift through the air- reaching many humans beyond its target. Methyl iodide has been shown to cause late term miscarriages and contaminate groundwater. Moreover, it is clearly a carcinogen, with scientists using it to create cancer cells in laboratories. It is also on California’s official list of known carcinogenic chemicals and has been linked to serious risks in neurological and reproductive health.
Pesticides are dangerous to farmworkers day in and day out. Many have been linked to skin rashes, nausea, and vomiting. Some pesticides have been linked to early term miscarriages, others to different forms of cancer and neurological problems. Pesticides are designed to harm life and to kill pests and fungi. Methyl iodide is the worst perpetrator that is known to harm individuals in direct contact with it, such as farmworkers, as well as innocent community members who fall under the dangerous pesticide drift. California farmworkers, as well as farmworker and environmental justice groups everywhere, are anxiously waiting for the judge’s decision.