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Risky Business

County Okays Controversial Pesticide Application


Originally published 12:00 a.m., October 20, 2011
Updated 10:00 a.m., October 20, 2011

Tuesday morning, near Guadalupe in North County Santa Barbara, one of California’s most controversial and newly approved pesticides was applied to some five acres of land soon to be planted with strawberries. Looking to cure a stubborn case of Macrophomina (a rot-causing pathogen) in their fields, G&S Farms — after securing a special permit from the agricultural commissioner’s office last Wednesday — applied methyl iodide to its farmland. It was only the fifth such commercial application of the potentially cancer-causing pesticide in the state since it was made legal late last year.

[Editor’s Note: The methyl iodide application, contrary to initial reports, did not occur Tuesday morning and has been rescheduled to Monday morning.]

Expressing his dismay about the application of the fumigant, Paul Towers, a spokesperson for watchdog organization Pesticide Action Network (PAN), said simply, “There is no question in the scientific community that [methyl iodide] is too toxic to use. This is a really unfortunate decision by officials to basically ignore the science on this and put people at risk.” In an ironic twist, PAN filed a lawsuit in Alameda County courts that aims to roll back the state’s policy toward methyl iodide on the same day S.B. County issued G&S its permit.

Of course, despite the view of PAN and various other outfits around the country, the use of methyl iodide as a pesticide — sold under the brand name Midas by the Japan-based Arysta LifeScience company — is perfectly legal in California and considered by many to be a practical and equally effective replacement for methyl bromide, a longtime pesticide villain popular with strawberry growers that has been essentially rendered illegal due to its ozone-destroying ways.

In December 2010, California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation gave methyl iodide the green light as an heir apparent to methyl bromide despite a particularly damning evaluation of the chemical’s inherent health risks by a team of independent scientists specifically convened to help advise the agency. In fact, the group went so far in their report as to say not only that methyl iodide is “highly toxic” but also that “any anticipated scenario for the agricultural or structural fumigation use of this agent would result in exposures to a large number of the public and thus would have a significant adverse impact on the public health.”

Similarly, in 2007, the federal Environmental Protection Agency approved the pesticide despite an impressive outpouring of concern from the scientific community. The problem with the pesticide, explained Towers, isn’t that it ends up on your food — it is typically applied to the soil via a chemi-irrigation or simple broadcast spraying process under a tarp long before the fruit is ever planted. Instead, it can have horrible ramifications for the workers who apply it and for unknowing people exposed to “wafts” of it that might leak out from the application area. “Look, fumigants are just too difficult to contain,” said Towers, adding with emphasis, “and this is a known carcinogen that has been definitively linked to major environmental and health problems. … Hopefully this is the last application ever in California.”

To that end, besides PAN’s lawsuit — in which they, along with United Farm Workers of America, are represented by California Rural Legal Assistance — Governor Jerry Brown publicly pledged in March to reexamine the state’s policy.

Santa Barbara County agricultural biologist Debra Trupe (filling in for Ag Commissioner Cathy Fisher, who was out of town at a California Ag Commissioners Conference this week) defended her agency’s issuing of the methyl iodide permit by explaining the various “special” conditions the department imposed on G&S above and beyond those already required by the state. According to Trupe, after investigating the actual location of the strawberry field — roughly a half mile from any occupied structure (a packing shed) and more than a mile from any actual neighborhood — the Commissioner’s Office required that G&S use a totally impenetrable tarp for sealing in the fumigant, that it be applied via a chemi-irrigation process complete with pressure gauges so as to prevent any potential blowouts or leaks, and that the tenting tarp only be removed on a weekend, when no schools are in session in nearby Guadalupe.

“Even if there was a blowout or some worst-case scenario, it is protected,” said Trupe.

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