Over the past couple of weeks. there have been some new developments in the controversy over methyl iodide, a fumigant used mostly in the harvesting of strawberries.

Farmers say methyl iodide is critical to the state’s $2 billion strawberry industry, and California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation approved it last year.

The process, however, exposed a rift between DPR scientists and administrators, when the latter approved exposure levels 120 times higher than what staff and consulting scientists believe is safe for farm workers and people who live near strawberry fields. (Background on this story here, here, and here.)

EPA opens public comment period

Last week, the EPA opened a public comment period on methyl iodide. Environmentalists say this is a long time coming. In March, 2010, the enviro-law group Earthjustice submitted a petition to the US-EPA, asking that the agency revoke its approval of the fumigant, which would force California to do the same. In August, US Senator Diane Feinstein chimed in, requesting that the EPA re-evaluate the methyl iodide decision. Last Thursday the agency formally invited members of the public to weigh in on whether methyl iodide should be approved as a pesticide. At the end of the 30-day period, the agency will “evaluate the petitioner’s request,” to see whether it warrants further action.

So, does the move signal a shift in the EPA’s thinking about whether methyl iodide should be a federally-approved pesticide? Or is it just a formality? Depends on who you ask. Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice, said “our hope is that EPA will take this process seriously and will conclude that the prior administration’s decision to register methyl iodide was misguided.”

In a written statement, Jeff Tweedy, head of business development for Arysta LifeScience, methyl iodide’s manufacturer, said, “To be clear, the public comment period is not a reopening of the Federal registration of methyl iodide for review.”

Department head who approved methyl iodide resigns

Mary-Ann Warmerdam, who was appointed to the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2004, left to take a job at Clorox. So far, no word from Governor Jerry Brown on who will replace her.

DPR scientists who criticized methyl iodide registration leave the department

Last year, KQED-QUEST filed a request under California’s Public Records Act for documents that might reveal details about how the DPR reached its allowable exposure level, which is so much greater than what its risk assessment scientists believed was safe.

Among the documents we received were a series of emails from scientists on the DPR’s evaluation team, indicating they had not been consulted and “had to read between the lines” to try and figure out how the final exposure levels had been reached. They also wrote that DPR heads had not included cancer risk in the department’s decision to approve the chemical. Now, both scientists have left the agency. According to DPR spokeswoman Lea Brooks, Ruby Reed retired in December and Lori Lim took a job in August at the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Below is an interview on these developments with Earthjustice’s Greg Loarie. The organization, representing several environmental and farm-worker advocacy groups, filed a lawsuit in December against the Department of Pesticide Regulation and Arysta LifeScience. You can read the petition here.

Interview with methyl iodide opponent Greg Loarie[audio:http://ww2.kqed.org/news/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2011/03/MethylIodideEJ1.mp3]

And here’s a statement from the fumigant’s manufacturer, Arysta LifeScience, on the EPA public comment period:

Arysta LifeScience has expected this public comment period as a regular part EPA’s procedure when any petition about a product is received. To be clear, the public comment period is not a reopening of the Federal registration of methyl iodide for review.

Questions about methyl iodide’s safety have all been asked and answered through protective safety measures required by EPA and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. DPR performed an extraordinarily rigorous 8-year review of MIDAS in addition to the EPA review process described as its ‘most comprehensive review ever.’

Methyl iodide has a track record of real-world use on more than 17,000 acres in the Southeast since it was registered by the EPA in 2007. Methyl iodide can and is being used safely and without harm to farmworkers, bystanders, neighbors or the environment today. We stand behind methyl iodide as an important tool for growers.”

Methyl Iodide Update: EPA Opens Up Public Comment Period 23 March,2011Amy Standen

  • Ellen Cummings

    The decision to even consider going forward with methyl iodine is highly disturbing and must be stopped. I have started to buy organic berries whenever possible, but sometimes buy conventional ones. If this goes forward, I will never, ever buy conventional berries. It also makes me wonder about the safety of organic from those states/ areas that will allow usage of this chemical. Once it is in the ground water, it will affect residents and organic farmers too. How organic will organic growing be if this is lurking in the water. Americans haven’t volunteered to be a part of this lab experiment, and we’ll have to be vigilant about reading the fine print about state of origin to boycott conventional and organic product the states that will be using this pesticide. Hopefully, something will be done to stop the madness to not use methyl iodine!


Amy Standen

Amy Standen (@amystanden) is co-host of #TheLeapPodcast (subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!) and host of KQED and PBSDigital Studios’ science video series, Deep Look.  Her science radio stories appear on KQED and NPR.

Email her at astanden@kqed.org

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