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


Posted on 12 January 2012

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By Jora Trang
Worksafe

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.

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Jora Trang is Managing Attorney at WORKSAFE, an organization that works to protect people from job-related hazards and empower them to advocate for the right to a safe and healthy workplace. This article originally appeared on Labor’s Edge.

After about half an hour of milling around addressing the state’s budget cuts to the court system, resulting in the lack of a court reporter for the trial (a serious issue in and of itself), today’s battle regarding the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR)’s approval of Methyl Iodide, manufactured by Arysta LifeScience, resumed with a standing ovation when an on-call court reporter finally arrived at 10:30 a.m. Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch heard oral arguments from attorneys representing the Plaintiffs, farmworkers and advocates, including Worksafe, Inc., as well as from the State of California and Arysta LifeScience.

Clearly befuddled by the State’s lack of analysis of what is referred to as a “no project alternative”, the Judge admonished the State stating, “The requirements under CEQA are not tremendous to begin with this – I could not find an analysis in the records that the State performed regarding a “no project alternative”, so absent that – I cannot see how you can prevail on this.” In essence, what the Judge was referring to is fact that the State skipped a step in following the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in failing to analyze what effects failure to use Methy Iodide at all would have on the environment – in essence – a “no project alternative.”

Moreover, Plaintiffs’ counsel, Greg Loarie, argued that the DPR “cherry-picked its data and methods in order to arrive at a conclusion amenable to the chemical company, Arysta.” (See KQED article at http://californiawatch.org/dailyreport/judge-rule-lawsuit-challenging-pe...). The Director of the DPR failed, however, as Plaintiffs’ counsel artfully argued, “to show its work,” leaving the public confused as to how the Director came up with the numbers she did to approve Methyl Iodide. In this current climate in which we are faced with environmental degradation on the one hand, and the health and safety of workers, their families, and rural communities on the other hand, attention to other alternatives as well as clear compliance with environmental laws should be a serious and integral component of the pesticide regulation process.

The Judge allowed for several additional weeks of briefing on the limited issue of the State’s arguments as to why DRP’s regulations trump federal CEQA. It will be interesting to see how the State will make that argument. Following consideration of briefs on January 27th, the court will issue its opinion shortly regarding whether or not the State violated California law in issuing its approval for Methyl Iodide. We stand in suspense...

Thanks for your work Jora...and the update.

Significant work, Jora!

Worksafe considers the announcements by Arysta to discontinue usage of methyl iodide to be an amazing victory. This success reflects the work of agricultural workers and their families, farmers, the rural community, the scientific community, environmental groups, and legal aid organizations that came together to bring the issue of methyl iodide to the national forefront. We commend our allies and look forward to continuing to remain vigilant with them to ensure the health and safety of agricultural workers and their families as well as consumers. Greg Loarie, the lead attorney with Earthjustice who represented Worksafe as one of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit eloquently stated: “This way is more powerful than a court victory. It's a concession. It's them walking." Moreover, the California Strawberry Commission’s recent announcements about researching alternatives to chemical fumigants is a step in the right direction. We’re pleased that the Department of Pesticide Regulation Director, Brian R. Leahy, supports this effort that will ensure the health and safety of those working in the fields, living near the fields, as well as those that consume and eat the strawberries.