Methyl Iodide on Trial: Bad for Public Health, Food Security, Worker Safety and the Environment

Today, a lawsuit filed in December 2010 by Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance – on behalf of several farmworkers and a number of activist groups, including Worksafe, Inc., against the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) and Arysta LifeScience – heads back to court. At issue is the approval of methyl iodide for agricultural use here in California.

Methyl iodide is a particularly nasty carcinogen. Fifty-four eminent scientists, including six Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, called it “one of the more toxic chemicals used in manufacturing” and questioned the wisdom of U.S. EPA’s approval of the chemical in the first place. It poses the most direct risks to farmworkers, particularly young workers, and neighboring communities; a team of independent scientists determined that it would likely result in exposures far above levels of concern, unless the size of spray buffer zones was “several hundred feet to several miles.”

Unsurprisingly, other states – specifically New York and Michigan – which had considered approving its use decided against it. In California, the story is a bit different.

According to court documents, despite the fact that many of their own scientists and an independent State-convened Scientific Review Committee recommended against approval, the DPR approved the pesticide methyl iodide at exposures levels for farm workers 120 times higher than what was believed to be safe. Approval of the pesticide was rushed through in the final days of the Schwarzenegger administration, and it’s currently approved for application to strawberries, peppers, tomatoes, orchards, vineyards, and nurseries at rates up to 100 pounds per acre. In California, it will primarily be used on much of the state’s 38,000 acres of strawberry production, totaling potentially millions of pounds of use.

This is dangerously irresponsible public policy on a number of levels, but its impact on young workers is of particular concern to those of us in the occupational safety and health community.

Adolescents are routinely employed in agricultural work, a fact with deeply worrying implications in the context of methyl iodide use. For instance, while all workers who perform tasks that disturb surface soil will encounter substantial amounts of the pesticide, young workers have elevated inhalation rates compared to adults, increasing their short term and cumulative exposure levels above those of many other members of the population. And since they undergo intense and rapid brain development and substantial hormonal changes at this period in their lives, they are also highly susceptible to neurotoxic chemicals and hormone disruptors; methyl iodide is both.

Despite their special vulnerability, current California child labor laws do not adequately protect young workers from pesticide exposure. While teens can be found throughout California’s agricultural fields, both with and without the permits mandated for such employment, there is no regulation to prevent them from working in or adjacent to fields that have been sprayed or fumigated. Under existing law, teens ages 16 and 17 could even be involved in the direct application of pesticides, assuming they met other certification and training requirements.

As the case against this dangerous pesticide makes its way through the courts, local governments have already begun to take action. The County of Santa Cruz recently passed a resolution against the chemical, while the County of Monterey is considering other measures. Dozens of state legislators have authored letters in opposition to the chemical, and Governor Brown pledged to “take a fresh look” at the issue last March.

It’s unconscionable to expose any worker, much less young workers, to highly toxic pesticides unnecessarily. It flies in the face not only of expert opinion but common sense. As a matter of prudent public health, environmental, food security, and worker safety policies, the use of methyl iodide in the state should have been rejected outright especially in light of the strong science that backed up such a denial. Since it wasn’t, advocates and workers will continue the fight to protect ourselves and our communities.