Thousands ask EPA to withdraw the carcinogen methyl iodide from ag

More than 10,000 people sent a petition to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson requesting the withdrawal of EPA’s registration for agriculture of the fumigant pesticide methyl iodide (also called iodomethane or by its commercial name Midas). EPA’s October 5 registration of MeI opened the door for thousands of tons of this chemical to be applied onto agricultural fields, as close as 25 feet away from homes, parks and businesses.

On October 25, 2007 over 10,000 people sent a petition to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson requesting the withdrawal of EPA’s registration for agriculture of the fumigant pesticide methyl iodide (also called iodomethane or by its commercial name Midas). EPA registered methyl iodide (MeI) as a soil fumigant on October 5, 2007. MeI is widely opposed because of its well-known cancer hazards. EPA’s own evaluation indicates that methyl iodide causes thyroid toxicity, permanent neurological damage, and fetal deaths in experimental animals. EPA’s registration of MeI opened the door for thousands of tons of this chemical to be applied onto agricultural fields, as close as 25 feet away from homes, parks and businesses.

MeI is a broad spectrum soil fumigant developed as a pre-plant treatment to control soil-borne diseases, nematodes and weeds on strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, ornamentals, stonefruit crops, nut crops, vine crops (including table and wine grapes), turf and nursery crops. MeI is touted as a replacement for methyl bromide (MeBr), a highly toxic fumigant pesticide that is used to sterilize the soil to eliminate pests before planting fruits and vegetables. MeBr is being phased out under the Montreal Protocol that bans substances that destroy the stratospheric ozone layer. Over the 50 years or so that methyl bromide has been in use, it has been responsible for causing serious permanent health problems to farmworkers such as applicators, tarp cutters and sealers, and others who handle this chemical. Most of California’s strawberries and Florida’s tomatoes are grown in soil fumigated with MeBr.

However, scientists say that MeI is not the answer as a MeBr substitute. On September 24 2007, 54 scientists, most members of the National Academy of Sciences, including six Nobel laureates, urged EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson not to register MeI as a soil fumigant because of the high risks it poses to human health and the environment. The scientists observed that chemists use only small quantities of MeI in the lab and with great caution to avoid exposure and expressed their concern about the potential hazards from the widespread use of this chemical. They said that pregnant women and the fetus, children, the elderly, and farmworkers would be at serious risk because of MeI exposure. Scientists were perplexed that EPA would even consider the introduction of MeI into agriculture, considering EPA’s strict stance on industrial emissions of the same chemical.

Professor Robert Bergman from the University of California, Berkeley and a signer of the letter said “It’s important for people to understand that the top chemists in the nation came together to oppose registration of this chemical”. Ted Schettler a physician who helped write the letter to EPA said on October 12 at the Living on Earth show that MeI also injures the nervous system and the developing brains of children, and fetuses could be especially vulnerable. Schettler is concerned that the EPA has not used the authority that the Agency has to require a look at the impact of this chemical on the developing brains of children before they've approved it.

In Living on Earth, EPA’s Assistant Administrator of the Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, Jim Gulliford, acknowledged the high toxicity of MeI and said the chemical has value from the pesticidal standpoint. Gulliford added that the risks are mitigated by procedures such as buffer zones, and reentry times. However, Susan Kegley from Pesticide Action Network North America says that EPA’s restrictive provisions on the use of MeI are unrealistic. “Who is going to enforce all those requirements? There are not enough inspectors to inspect the thousands of agricultural operations. In Florida in particular, there are hardly any fumigant regulations now,” Kegley said. Florida along with California is one of the largest users of MeBr and is expected to be one of the largest users of MeI.

Farmworker organizations are worried about the health effects of MeI on farmworkers and rural communities. Jeannie Economos from the Farmworker Association of Florida told the Palm Beach Post, "We already have cases of injuries to farmworkers caused by methyl bromide, and methyl iodide will only be worse. And we're also concerned about what this could do to Florida's water supply, what dangers it poses to the aquifer." Florida has shallow water tables which could be contaminated by this chemical.

Eirk Nicholson from the United Farmworkers of America said, “EPA is putting farmworkers, farmers, and families in rural communities in harm’s way for a chemical that farmers don’t need. Isn’t it their job to protect people from these toxic chemicals?”

Victor Contreras from Centro Campesino, Owatonna, MN expressed serious concern about the health hazards of pesticides to farmworkers. Contreras says “In Minnesota we don’t have access to public records, if there are any, about the chemicals used in agriculture, therefore farmworkers are not aware about what chemicals may be poisoning them and their families.” According to EPA, the main soil fumigant used in Minnesota is metam sodium (1-5 million pounds a year), used primarily on potatoes, although some MeBr is used (5,000-60,000 pounds a year). Contreras also said that around 3.5 million farmworkers labor in the fields across the United States, many of them undocumented immigrants who don’t report injuries or illness for fear of reprisal or deportation.

Farmers say that they need effective pest management control methods that are safe for people and the environment. Instead, farmers point out that EPA continues to hand down toxic and dangerous chemicals manufactured by the agrochemical industry. Steven Schwen, a Minnesota farmer from Earthen Path Organic Farm says “it does not help farmers when EPA registers hazardous chemicals that threaten human health, put farmworkers at risk and kill beneficial organisms that are essential for a healthy balanced soil. The dangers and injury to humans and our planet from this industrial agriculture extend far beyond the field and affect us all in many unseen and diverse ways.”

Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist from the Organic Consumers Association based in Finland, MN says “Consumers demand food that is healthy and does not threaten the health of farmworkers and ecosystems.”

The University of California owns the patent on MeI but licensed it to the Japanese company Arysta LifeScience. Arysta announced its plans to have Midas widely available by October 2007 in the U.S. and to market methyl iodide globally as a replacement for methyl bromide. The company was the focus of a bidding war among several foreign chemical corporations until it was announced October 21 that Arysta was to be purchased for $2.2 billion by Permira Advisors LLP.

Former Arysta North America CEO Elin Miller was appointed by US EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson to head EPA’s Region 10 (northwestern U.S.) in 2006. Critics have raised questions about conflicts of interest between Ellin Miller's former position with Arysta and her current position as regional EPA administrator. On Friday, October 19, 2007 Oregon’s demonstrators, several farmers among them, in front of EPA’s Region 10 Office in Portland demanded a reversal on the MeI decision and the resignation of Miller.

MeI is the first new fumigant registered by EPA in 20 years and adds to the list of highly hazardous chemicals used in the fruit and vegetable industry. Fumigants are used to sterilize the soil before planting to kill weeds and pests (such as fungi and nematodes).
Fumigants also kill beneficial organisms like earthworms and contaminate air and groundwater, posing a serious health threat to farmworkers, farmers, and people living close to fumigated sites.

Fumigants are highly prone to drift, which raises serious exposure concerns. Massive poisonings have occurred in Florida, California, Texas, Oregon, New York, Louisiana, and Arizona. In one example, 360 people were poisoned by the fumigant chloropicrin when a strawberry field a quarter-mile away was treated in Salinas, California. Some fumigants also are used to control structural pests such as termites and as “commodity fumigants” for grain, nuts, produce and timber stored in warehouses and shipping containers. Dr. Vincent Garry, an emeritus professor from the University of Minnesota, has done research on fumigants and says “fumigants are designed to kill. They are quick and deadly.”

EPA is evaluating all currently registered fumigant pesticides for re-registration as mandated by the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. EPA will release new regulations for the agricultural use of the fumigants methyl bromide, chloropicrin, methyl isothiocyanate (MITC), Telone, dazomet, and the new MeI. EPA’s docket to accept public comments on risk mitigation options on soil fumigants closes on November 3. Citizens around the country are demanding that EPA initiate a phase out of fumigant pesticides and enact highly restrictive measures for their use during the interim period to the phase out.

Chela Vázquez is a national campaigner for the Pesticide Action Network North America.

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