If methyl iodide is approved, the decision will come with a long list of regulations, designed to protect workers, and people who live nearby from inhaling fumes from the chemical.

This story comes from California Watch.

The Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing scientific assessments of a controversial strawberry fumigant scheduled for use in California, as well as opening up a public comment period on the toxic pesticide, according to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the environmental law group Earthjustice.

This could have implications in California, where the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation is expected to approve the fumigant, methyl iodide, later this year, amid concerns that it could be toxic to farmworkers and people who live near agricultural fields.

In an interview last week, Feinstein said she had asked the EPA to look into methyl iodide after learning about the 120-fold difference between exposure levels deemed safe by the DPR, and the levels deemed safe by the agency’s own staff scientists, as well as by a panel of outside scientists commissioned by the state.

“My letter,” said Feinstein, “was to say, ‘EPA, can you take another look at this, in view of this other testimony? Because the scientific data here is so very different.'”

The EPA later told Feinstein it would open a review of California’s differing scientific assessments of the fumigant.

Methyl iodide is considered critical to California’s $2 billion strawberry industry. Currently growers use a fumigant called methyl bromide, which is being phased out under international treaty because it damages the ozone layer.

The EPA approved methyl iodide in 2007. Both Feinstein and Earthjustice have requested formal reconsideration of that approval. However, the EPA’s announcement falls short of that. Earthjustice’s Paul Towers says he hopes the public comment period is the first step toward reconsideration, “and that when the federal government reviews this, they’ll come to the right decision.”

EPA spokesman Dale Kemery declined to say whether reconsideration was on the table or not.

Lea Brooks, DPR spokeswoman, noted that the EPA’s approved exposure levels are more than twice as high as what California is proposing. “California’s proposed restrictions are much more health-protective than U.S. EPA’s,” she said in an e-mail.

If the EPA decides to limit the use of methyl iodide, California growers could be unaffected, since the state’s restrictions are more stringent than the EPA’s. However, if the agency ultimately decides to revoke its approval of the pesticide, California officials would have to follow suit.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Fresno, who held a hearing on methyl iodide in June, has introduced a provision into state budget negotiations that would postpone methyl iodide’s registration by a year and require further review. The provision has met opposition from Republicans, and awaits approval by the Legislature.

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EPA Enters Debate Over Toxic Strawberry Fumigant 12 June,2013Amy Standen

  • cecily chang

    The proposal to use methyl iodide is terrible for the workers and people who live near the strawberry fields. It is also terrible for the insects, birds and other wildlife nearby. The scientific data clearly shows that exposure at the proposed levels way exceeds the safe exposure levels by 120-fold.

    I only buy strawberries from small growers who do not use these fumigants and pesticides. I would not buy strawberries that were harvested after spraying with methyl iodide.

    As a former scientist, I have respect for the independent studies done.

  • Marilyn Lynds

    I live in a community adjacent to a farm. For over 50 years my little community of 40 homes lived peacefully beside the artichokes.
    With dollar signs in his head, the owner switched over to strawberries in 2007 and fumigated the fields.
    We received no help or cooperation from the local ag commission or the DPR. In fact, they bent over backwards to help the farmer poison our community.
    We spent the summer in and out of court trying to protect ourselves and homes. The Monterey Ag Commission DID sign an injuction to stop the farmer from fumigating on the day of the local Antiques Faire. Apparently, the well being of visitors spending a couple of hours a quarter of a mile away from the field, took precedence over the lives of people who live 100 feet away, because the injuction was removed the next day and we were subject to 7 different applications of telone, methyl bromide and cloripicrin over the course of 3 months.
    That meant, for those lucky enough to have a place to go, uprooting our lives with 48 hour notice for up to a week 7 different times.
    I am a polio survivor(a degenerative nerve disease)and my husband is a cancer suvivor. There was also a neighbor in the end stages of Parkinson’s Disease and a young mother with M.S., two pregnant women, a few infants and several children under the age of 12, including our daughter. This does not even include the workers who are exposed to soil fumigants on a daily basis.
    We had monitors in our homes. Although the application went “according to plan” our yards and homes were contaminated with chloropicrin, telone and methyl bromide.
    I do not see how things are going to do anything but become worse if methyl iodide is added to this mix. We love our neighborhood, our neighbors and our homes. Please help us to be able to stay and please help the strawberry field workers. Currently,their life expectancy is 49 years.
    Marilyn Lynds
    Spokeswoman for the
    Moss Landing Heights Neighborhood Assn.
    (831) 633-8760

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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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