Advocacy & Activism, Environment, Health & Safety, Pesticides

Commentary: Protection from Methyl Iodide

From, Ed Mitchell, Guest Commentary, 31 May 2011.

Methyl iodide is seven times more toxic than previous fumigants applied on strawberry fields across North Monterey County. So whether you are a strawberry farmer, farmworker, parent with children attending school near strawberry fields, or a resident in North County, you will soon experience widespread agricultural usage of this known carcinogen.

It is reasonable, then, to ask if North County families, farms and environment will be adequately protected in the long-term.

Three years ago, I began seeking an answer to this question. I spoke with pesticide experts, the county agriculture commissioner and residents exposed to current fumigants. I also researched pesticide approval and usage in California during the last 70 years.

I learned that since the 1950s, the chemical industry has championed in California a fumigant sales strategy called “safe until proven guilty.” This strategy argues that single-application safeguards provide adequate protection, while avoiding the issue of long-term, low-dosage effects.

Unfortunately and repeatedly, pesticides and fumigants that were claimed to be safe created such significant human, wildlife and environmental impacts after 15 to 20 years of use that they were nationally and internationally banned from agriculture use. Negative impacts in California included species depletion, unusable groundwater, breast cancer, prostate cancer and thyroid disruption. Banned pesticides include DDT, Dieldrin, Dioxins, DBCP, Telone (1,3-D) and methyl bromide. Impacted local governments and citizens often had to pay costly cleanup bills.

The historic trend is clear. State registration of cutting-edge fumigants like methyl iodide commonly levy a financial and public health burden upon residents and local governments in strawberry and tree-crop producing counties after long-term exposure to environmentally persistent pesticides.

Reading the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s (DPR) methyl iodide EIR is revealing. The DPR did not require, as Florida did, that the pesticide seller fund efforts to verify if real-world field procedures protected as promised. Nor did DPR allocate budget to strawberry-producing counties to verify that actual field usage protects farmworkers, citizens and water sources over time. Neither did the DPR specify any plan to gather baseline or out-year data.

Yet DPR’s independent Scientific Review Committee concluded that methyl iodide is too dangerous to be used in agriculture and that it was “alarming that there were no reliable data on the potential of methyl iodide to contaminate groundwater.”

By accepting that application safety equates to long-term safety while ignoring inputs by others and myself on this issue, DPR again shifted to the counties the danger of low-dosage, long-term impacts.

Is there a way to deploy methyl iodide to benefit strawberry producers yet reduce the risk to workers and families, now that we must live with the most toxic fumigant allowed into California in decades? I recommend a cautious-until-proven-safe strategy. Within the county’s power to establish restrictions to protect our unique environment and communities, county supervisors could:

  • Establish buffer setbacks from environmentally sensitive bodies of water such as the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve and Moss Landing Harbor.
  • Require the county Environmental Health Department (EHD) to inventory and publish on a website a map of sensitive sites that trigger mandatory application setbacks near strawberry fields.
  • Require EHD to perform baseline and out-year sampling of iodide levels in air and water sources near strawberry-producing fields.

Such precautions would reduce costs of identifying sensitive sites by farmers while informing residents about what setbacks should occur in their neighborhoods. Furthermore, periodic monitoring allows early detection of any emergent environmental problems, should they appear, allowing DPR to adjust application procedures or remove registration, hopefully prior to significant harm to humans or to water sources.

Ed Mitchell is a Prunedale activist.

Source:, “Ed Mitchell: Protection from methyl iodide” by Ed Mitchell, Guest Commentary, 31 May 2011.


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