Thursday, February 16, 2006
Methyl iodide causes cancer. Some scientists say this pesticide fumigant is more dangerous than methyl bromide, another chemical which was supposed to be phased out years ago. But now, as it scrambles to find a replacement for methyl bromide, the US Environmental Protection Agency appears determined to approve the more toxic methyl iodide for use on local strawberry fields, and elsewhere.
“Methyl iodide is not an ozone depleter like methyl bromide,” says Susan Kegley, a senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network. “But that’s the only nice thing I can say about it.”
On Sept. 16, 1987, the US joined 23 countries and the European Economic Community in Montreal, Canada to sign the Montreal Protocol, an agreement to abolish the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, including methyl bromide. Developed nations pledged to cure themselves of their addiction to the pesticide by Jan. 1, 2005. The US vowed to do better: to ban the use of methyl bromide in California by 1997, and to ban its import and production nationwide by 2001.
Things didn’t go according to plan.
In 2001, California farmers used 6.6 million pounds of methyl bromide. By 2003, that number had skyrocketed to nearly 7.4 million pounds.
Monterey County’s track record is better, with the exception of a 2003 spike in use. Local wine grape growers have cut their use most drastically. Some vineyards—like Frey, Fetzer and Kendall-Jackson—have quit using methyl bromide altogether.
Still, as the US continues to receive thousands of “critical use” methyl bromide exemptions from the now 183 signatories of the Montreal Protocol, the EPA needs to find a substitute. So it’s pushing methyl iodide through the pesticide approval process. The EPA is currently accepting public comment on whether to approve the fumigant.
Under California’s Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, methyl iodide is listed as “known to the state to cause cancer.”
“With methyl iodide, growers will also have to worry about groundwater contamination and increased fieldworker exposure,” Kegley says.
David Chatfield, executive director of Californians for Pesticide Reform, is baffled by the notion of replacing methyl bromide with methyl iodide. “It’s like jumping out of the kettle and directly into the fire,” he says. “It’s six times more acutely toxic than methyl bromide. If it touches the skin, it’s absorbed rapidly. It can’t be contained like methyl bromide. It’s going to drift. A lot.”
Still, the EPA continues to push methyl iodide onto the “approved” list, concluding that methyl iodide is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” at low doses. The EPA used only a single study to come to this conclusion, and points out that 62 to 66 percent of the rats in both the control and high-dose groups died during that experiment.
Still, experts agree there are solutions that don’t include methyl iodide.
“There are farmers statewide who took the ban seriously and started researching alternatives that weren’t chemical,” Kegley says. “They’ve found techniques that work, like rotating their crops and using more resistant varieties.
“We don’t want to penalize farmers who might have to take a risk to their economic viability. We’d like to see these farmers get incentives via subsidies. Only then can we start thinking about farming without chemicals.”
THE EPA’S PUBLIC COMMENT PERIOD ON METHYL IODIDE ENDS
FEB. 21. E-MAIL COMMENTS TO: DOCKET@EPA.GOV AND REFERENCE
“DOCKET #EPA-HQ-OPP-2005-0252-0002, EPA PUBLIC DOCKET.”
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