Pesticide prompts scuffle over safety in California
By JACOB ADELMAN
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The winds that blow across the strawberry fields outside Linda Uvari's home during the spring harvest season carry the tart, sugary smell of the swelling fruits.
Uvari fears that they may soon also carry a cancer-causing pesticide.
The California Department of Pesticide Regulation has proposed replacing a popular fumigant with methyl iodide despite concerns by its own scientific advisory panel that it could poison the air and water.
That's turned the strawberry fields around Uvari's Ventura County home and along the Central Coast into the latest battleground over the chemical that first stoked controversy three years ago when it received federal approval.
"It scares me. I just don't see why they have to use something that is so toxic," Uvari said. "My feeling is that they put profit before people."
The chemical has been applied to more than 15,000 acres of crops over the last two years, mostly in southeastern states, and has not been associated with illnesses, said Jeff Tweedy, head of business development for Tokyo-based pesticide giant Arysta LifeScience Corp., which makes the pesticide.
Opponents say it can take up to 10 years for long-term effects such as cancer to show up and in the nation's richest farm state there's concern among advocacy groups. They say they have seen enough pesticide drift incidents that have sickened workers and nearby residents.
Fumigants such as methyl iodide, which has caused miscarriages in laboratory rats and rabbits and is a known carcinogen, are among the most dangerous class of pesticide, since their gaseous state enables them to drift away from where they are applied, said Susan E. Kegley, a scientist with the Pesticide Action Network.
"You can't help but have people be in the way of that cloud of fumigant as it drifts off," she said.
California's $1.6 billion strawberry industry would probably be the main user of the substitute for methyl bromide, which is being phased out under an international treaty because it depletes the earth's protective ozone layer.
After strawberries, the state's major methyl bromide users are flower growers, who are concentrated in Ventura and San Diego counties.
Methyl iodide was championed as a safe replacement for methyl bromide when the EPA approved it for use in 2007 over the objections of environmentalists and health experts who questioned whether it could be applied safely.
Opponents included more than 50 National Academy of Sciences members -- five of them Nobel laureates -- who signed a letter to the agency's administrator warning the chemical's broad agricultural use would result in people being exposed to the carcinogen.
Strawberry growers in Ventura insist it's the only alternative that will help them grow an abundance of the lucrative crop to keep them in business in an area where farmland and labor costs are much higher. It's currently used in Florida, Georgia and other southeastern states to grow crops such as tomatoes and peppers, and has recently been cleared for use in Japan and Turkey.
"We're losing our best fumigant when we lose methyl bromide, so every tool that we have for trying to combat diseases out in the field is going to help," said Andy Hooper, who manages a Ventura County farm that grows strawberries and other crops.
Regulators in California reviewed the pesticide and concluded last month that farmworkers and nearby residents will be safe if it is used with tough restrictions that include applying the chemical beneath a specially designed tarp with a buffer zone of 100 feet to 2,500 feet -- four-to-five times the EPA requirement.
Tweedy, the head of business development at Arysta, said he hopes additional safety studies will convince regulators to reduce buffer zones.
The chemical is injected under bare soil weeks before crops are planted and tests have found no traces of the carcinogen in fruit from treated soil, although Kegley said that researchers have not evaluated crops from fields that have been treated with the fumigant over many seasons.
Opponents also fear farmers will ignore the guidelines. They point to violations of other farmworker protections, such as rules about working in the hot sun. At least 12 farmworkers have died from the heat since 2005.
The restrictions "are going to be at best laxly enforced if there is any enforcement at all," said Erik Nicholson, national vice president of United Farm Workers.
The pesticide department's own panel of scientists signaled alarm in their February report, saying that a large number of people would be exposed to methyl iodide if it were used as an agricultural fumigant. That, they said, "would have a significant adverse impact on public health."
The eight-member committee said there wasn't enough data to show that groundwater would be safe, though department spokeswoman Lea Brooks said computer models show it unlikely to affect water quality even under worst-case conditions.
University of Southern California chemistry professor John Froines, who chaired the experts' committee, did not return several phone messages.
Uvari, the Ventura resident whose home abuts a strawberry field, said she and her family were sickened in the mid-90s when a cloud of methyl bromide drifted into her neighborhood. She said she's doing everything she can to stop its more dangerous replacement.
"I definitely do write my legislators and I vote," she said. "And I pray a lot."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.