Methyl Iodide on Trial: Dangerous Pesticide Illegally Approved?

cartons of tomatoes and strawberriesMethyl iodide is one of the worst actors in the Big Ag Pesticide Toolbox. Known to be a dangerous neurotoxin, carcinogen, miscarriage inducer, and endocrine disruptor, the soil fumigant is currently under precedent-setting legal review in California. A major win for health and sustainability fans may be imminent, if the presiding judge rules that methyl iodide was illegally approved.

Methyl iodide is a highly toxic pesticide, heavily used in conventional production of strawberries and tomatoes. The poison was created by Arysta LifeScience Corp to replace methyl bromide, which (long after its approval for agricultural use) was found to damage the ozone layer. Methyl iodide was initially approved by the EPA in 2008, against the advice of the scientists studying it and with strenuous opposition by toxicologists familiar with its effects.

California has additional procedural hurdles for new pesticides to jump through after EPA approval, intended to add a level of health and environmental safety testing for newly introduced industrial and agricultural chemicals. But despite public outcry and scientific concern about methyl iodide, it was also approved for use in California in 2010 — apparently in violation of California’s own regulatory procedures for new pesticides.

What’s that you’re asking? Was that perhaps a totally bunk decision, motivated by politics and corporate PR rather than science or existing legal protections for California workers, consumers, and residents? Why YES! Good question: you’ve hit the nail right on the hammer! At least, plaintiffs in the current case against methyl iodide are nodding vigorously, and seem to have evidence to back their claims.

Last year lawyers for Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. filed suit on behalf of several environmental and farmworkers’ rights groups, challenging methyl iodide’s approval. All arguments are now completed, and the case is being considered by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch. A decision is expected within a few weeks.

According to a recent article in the Atlantic,

Methyl iodide has made no shortage of enemies since being approved. In addition to labor and environmental organizations, their numbers include 35 California legislators who signed a letter last April asking the EPA to “suspend and cancel” all uses of methyl iodide in the United States. At about the same time, the current governor of California, Jerry Brown, promised to reconsider the state’s decision to register methyl iodide. The EPA has opened a public comment period on a petition, asking it to ban methyl iodide, and so far more than 200,000 citizens have written in support of the ban…

Judge Frank Roesch, who is hearing the California case, is showing that he is no pushover. According to a press release from Pesticide Action Network North America, a plaintiff in the California case, the judge said he found no evidence that the state officials had ever considered not approving methyl iodide. Without such evidence, the judge said that he could not see how the state could “prevail in this lawsuit.”

Well… GOOD! Because I, for one, have just about had it up to my eyeballs with agricultural product approval and use FOLLOWED BY serious environmental and health concerns. Here’s an idea: let’s not approve new agricultural chemistry or practices unless they’ve actually been proven– yes, by honest scientific evaluation!– to be environmentally nondestructive and (this is important!) NOT hazardous to human health. How ’bout that?!

Scientific research clearly shows methyl iodide to be too toxic for agricultural use. The arguments attempting to justify its continued use are weak weak weak weak. This case has huge accountability implications for corporate and governmental agencies, who for far too long have prioritized issues other than reasonable health and environmental standards for agricultural policy decisions.

We deserve better, fellow food consumers! If you agree, and would like to express support for a ban of methyl iodide, sign this. Because you know what they say: the squeaky wheel gets the noncarcinogenic nonneurotoxic non-miscarriage-inducing non-endocrine-disrupting food production system!

The bottom line is that there’s just no good reason for a civilized society to tolerate this kind of lackadaisical mismanagement of environmental toxins. If Judge Roesch agrees, methyl iodide may be on its way out of the US agricultural scene, and more transparent scientific evaluation of agricultural chemicals could be right around the corner.

Bring it on, Judge! … both developments are long overdue.

Image credit: Creative Commons photo by burgundavia.






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7 thoughts on “Methyl Iodide on Trial: Dangerous Pesticide Illegally Approved?”

  1. This in from the man who patented methyl iodide. If you want to be enlightened about the subject, don’t ignore this posting:

    Methyl Iodide Is Needed Replacement For Methyl Bromide
    Jim Sims – SF Chronicle – Editorial – 7/22/2010

    Strawberry growers want to use a controversial chemical, methyl iodide, to replace ozone-depleting methyl bromide, which the EPA is phasing out.

    I proposed the use of methyl iodide because it will not destroy the ozone layer as does methyl bromide, the fumigant it replaces. Much like other potent materials that are part of our everyday lives, methyl iodide can be used safely. This compound is the most researched and most tightly controlled fumigant yet registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    It has been used in the southeastern United States for nearly three years on more than 15,000 acres with no untoward events reported, according to the licensed patent holder, Arysta LifeScience Corp. It is used prior to planting in fields of peppers, tomatoes, strawberries and cut flowers. It controls weeds, nematodes, fungi and insects in the soil.

    Let’s be very clear here: Methyl iodide is injected into the soil one to two weeks before any plants are planted and immediately covered by a high-density tarp that prevents it from escaping into the atmosphere too quickly. This delay allows the use of less chemical than if conventional tarps were used.

    There is no spraying involved. And it certainly isn’t applied directly to plants. In fact, methyl iodide is broken down naturally by the time plants are introduced. There is no residue whatsoever left on or in the plants.

    The chemical is not a human carcinogen. It is a rodent carcinogen. Lois Swirsky Gold and Bruce N. Ames, both UC Berkeley researchers, stated in a 2008 paper that “The chronic, high dose rodent cancer test is not adequate to understanding human cancer risk at the low doses of most human exposures.”

    The studies that claim to show methyl iodide will cause late-term miscarriages were done using high-dose protocols on rabbits. This effect is not caused by methyl iodide itself but rather excess iodide that builds up in the body as methyl iodide is broken down. Furthermore, science has proven this effect does not translate to low-dose exposures to humans.

    John Froines, the chairman of the special review committee appointed by the Department of Pesticide Regulation, was quoted by the New York Times as saying that methyl iodide is “one of the most toxic chemicals on Earth.” Methyl iodide is actually a naturally occurring substance, with hundreds of thousands of tons of the compound produced every year by the oceans. In fact, anyone living in coastal regions can expect to inhale methyl iodide as part of their natural environment every day.

    Agriculture needs access to a methyl bromide alternative. The other alternatives – solarization, anaerobic soil disinfestations, crop rotation, steaming, etc. – simply don’t work.

    I am glad to see that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation has moved toward officially registering this much-needed product. A few in the California Legislature, however, have attempted to derail the registration process. These legislators should allow our state’s own regulatory agency to complete the process it began more than seven years ago.

    Jim Sims, professor emeritus of plant pathology at UC Riverside, is an author on the patents and the person who first proposed the use of methyl iodide as a soil fumigant.

  2. Well, I think he was wrong. Scientific consensus seems to be that it can’t, in fact, be used safely. At any rate, it ISN’T being used safely– do you know that in FL, there’s no system even in place to track how much is being used where? have you read anything about current issues involving farmworkers and pesticide exposure/ poisoning, from methyl iodide included? I think there’s a need for enlightenment, all right; that’s probably the point where our points diverge.

    If the guy who invented it says ‘hey, this is a great idea!’, it carries a whole heck of a lot less weight than if objective scientific evaluation says the same thing. In this case, it does not.

    But thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts.

  3. With all due respect Tanya, whether you think Mr. Sims is right or wrong really doesn’t matter to the California grower who is trying to phase out methyl bromide because it is detrimental to the ozone layer, and hoping to replace it with something that is safe and affordable. Strawberry growers and other farmers need a replacement so they can continue to do business. Both the U.S. EPA and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation have approved methyl iodide. Now you come along and want us to believe that your scientific knowledge in chemistry and toxins trumps the knowledge of a phalanx of scientists who make their livings by testing, measuring, formulating and approving crop production chemicals on a daily basis. Further, I get the impression that you are not only against the use of methyl iodide, but also would like to see all pesticides and plant GMO products banned. I supporse you want to surrender our food supply to the insect predators who would like nothing better than to see us starve. Sorry, you don’t sustain yourself from farming profits, so you have no dog in this hunt. Again, no offense intended. but I believe you are really out of your league dealing with complex chemistry issues that the majority of us depend on to feed ourselves and maintain our livelihoods.

    1. Here’s the thing: the *scientists studying it* didn’t want it approved, and the California regulation procedures for new pesticides weren’t followed. This isn’t a case of me saying, ‘I know better than all those guys.’ I’m simply saying ‘The system for approving new pesticides failed, in this case, according to both scientific and legal guidelines.’ Actually, no, that’s not right either: *I’m* not saying it, a big ol’ group of folks with whole PACKS of dogs in the hunt are saying it, in a California court. I’m telling you that this is occurring, and expressing support for scientific analysis versus political expediency or corporate profit.

      Yep: I think we do a lot of destructive stuff that isn’t smart, that benefits the few vs the many. You’re right that I don’t make my living in farming; but the first time you hear me raise a point that no farmers or farmworkers anywhere in this country are also making, only louder, please do bring it to my attention. I’d be interested. I live in an agricultural community, and may not be as distant as you think from your world; and if you think that all farming communities are thrilled with Roundup dependence and methyl iodide exposure, I think you’re really kidding yourself.

      As a side note, though, I think the notion that consumers and people who live adjacent to agricultural land don’t have an interest in pesticide issues is ludicrous. But, you know, whatever. Carry on.

      There are better ways to do things than methyl iodide and, yes, extensive reliance on biotechnology for core food crops. Farms all over the US are actually using other techniques and making a profit, without the environmental and health problems that come from heavy reliance on harsh synthetic chemical pesticides. That’s not just me saying so… but thanks for the credit!

      1. hmm.. Makes one wonder if perhaps folks with vested interests in the agricultural chemicals industry are seeking out these kinds of stories and attempting to discredit them with exaggerated rhetoric and skewed logic (since the truth clearly won’t do).. Hit a nerve, have we?

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