Potentially frightening news out of California last week: Methyl iodide, a ‘very reactive’ carcinogen, has been approved for use in California as a pesticide on strawberry fields. This is a big deal because California produces 90% of US strawberries.
“Everyone agrees, without exception, that methyl iodide is a very toxic compound. It’s very reactive. That means it interacts with living tissue in very toxic ways, causing cell damage and damage to cell structures, DNA, or chromosomes,” explains Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, science director at Science and Environmental Health Network. “The upshot is it can cause a lot of health effects, including cancer and damage to tissues that are developing. In animal studies, it killed the fetuses of developing animals exposed by inhalation; fetuses were killed at relatively low doses. Nobody doubts it’s a nasty chemical.”
Methyl iodide was approved for agricultural use by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 at the tail end of President George W. Bush’s administration; however, several states, including California, have laws restricting the use of certain chemicals, including methyl iodide. The EPA’s decision, then, did not affect California’s giant agricultural industry, Unfortunately, that decision created momentum for a change in California’s law (other states still restrict methyl iodide use).
Ironically, California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation ignored its own 2009 study which concluded that methyl iodide poses ‘significant health risks’.
Though methyl iodide sounds terrible , the primary danger is to persons living near fields being treated with methyl iodide. As a fumigant, methyl iodide is dispersed in a gaseous form. Farm workers, then, must take special care for their own safety and be cautious while they spray. Any accident with methyl iodide could pose an immediate risk to human health.
Additionally, there is concern that over-use of methyl iodide could lead to the chemical leaching though soil and contaminating the water supply.
Concerned Californians aren’t being passive about the regulatory change—many are actively protesting the decision. The easiest route to repeal, for the moment, is for Governor Jerry Brown to issue an order from his office. A lawsuit seeking this action has already been filed.