Methyl iodide may soon be applied to crops despite dire scientific warnings
If politics make for great live theater, then a February 22 hearing held in Sacramento about the controversial strawberry fumigant methyl iodide might have been scripted by Franz Kafka. And much like a Kafka tale, there are stories behind stories.
The characters include a state pesticide department that ignored its own scientists’ warnings; the department’s hired expert and his band of scientific brothers whom methyl iodide’s manufacturer claims went rogue; a produce industry worth billions of dollars to the state economy; and the private-equity-backed maker of a chemical product called Midas, whose company tag line reads “Bold, agile and customer driven.”
More specifically, the characters are:
The state Department of Pesticide Regulation, which last December approved methyl iodide’s registration in California, paving the way for pesticide applicators to seek permits to fumigate strawberry fields with the substance.
DPR’s hired gun, scientist John Froines, a bona fide member of the Chicago Seven turned Yale chemistry Ph.D. Now a professor of environmental health at UC Los Angeles, Froines was paid by the DPR to lead a scientific review of methyl iodide. During the Sacramento hearing, his simple statements—“Science was subverted” in the approval process, and “There is no safe level of release” when it comes to the fumigant—had jaws dropping.
The California Strawberry Commission, whose public policy director Rick Tomlinson says it’s fumigate or go home. He cataloged the nonfumigant alternatives—including breeding for pest resistance, steam-treating the soil, manure and even soil-less farming (using peat)—along with reasons none of these alternatives would work.
In the background, watching the hearing either in the chamber or on a live feed, were the folks from Arysta LifeScience North America, the North Carolina-based maker of Midas. They don’t want to talk about the money, they won’t say where the product is manufactured and the route on which it will be shipped, by rail, is secret, too. By their account, Midas is perfectly safe.
And Arysta officials say in just about a month, starting in early May, pesticide companies will begin seeking the first permits in California for those strawberry growers who want to apply Midas to their fields, despite the fact that some researchers use methyl iodide in their labs for the sole purpose of inducing cancer in mice.
Strawberries are considered a “high value” crop—expensive to put in the ground, but potentially lucrative if the season goes right. In California, the fruit represents a $2.1 billion industry, and growers in nearby Santa Cruz and Monterey counties produced 41 percent of the state’s strawberries in 2010.
Growers long have relied on the fumigant methyl bromide as a “preplant” soil fumigant, and as a quarantine and pre-shipment fumigant to prevent the export of native pests. It’s also being phased out as a result of the international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol because it depletes the ozone layer. That set the industry in search of alternatives.
That’s where methyl iodide comes in.
UC Riverside plant pathology professor Jim Sims researched the potential use of methyl iodide as a fumigant for 20 years, and eventually patented the manufacturing process. The University of California Board of Regents own the patent, UC Riverside manages it and licensed it to Arysta.
The company won’t say how much it pays for the patent, other than to describe it as “an annual fee.” Arysta’s business development manager Jeff Tweedy says the company has spent about $20 million getting Midas registered in various places, including California and Florida.
Amid the controversy as to whether it is safe for use, one community stands in almost unanimous opposition: scientists—including those like Froines who have been asked to investigate it.
Methyl iodide is a compound known as an alkylating agent, which means that it is damaging to DNA, the effect of which can lead to cancer as well as harm the development of a human fetus, among other things.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved it in 2007 for use as an agricultural fumigant, response among scientists was rapid. Robert Bergman, the Gerald E.K. Branch distinguished professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley, drafted a letter with his friend, the Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann, a chemistry professor at Cornell University in New York. The scientists outlined the potential dangers of methyl iodide to farmworkers and the general community, and asked the EPA to reconsider its approval. In a matter of days, Bergman garnered signatures from 52 more scientists, four of whom are Nobel laureates; the letter is now known as “The Letter of 54.”
“When I heard that it was going to be used as a pesticide, that large amounts were going to be put into the environment, I had to do something,” Bergman said.
The EPA did not rescind the approval, and scientists have since been in the department’s face in a fight where, while the facts seem to be on their side, reality exists in an alternate universe. According to Arysta’s Tweedy, when The Letter of 54 was first sent to the EPA, the agency immediately asked each scientist to prove that methyl iodide was as dangerous as the scientists were claiming.
There was no proof forthcoming, Tweedy said.
The EPA’s letter to Bergman, though, tells a different story. In short, rather than asking for proof of its danger, the EPA responded with a long justification about why it was OK to use methyl iodide.
“No one, including the EPA and Arysta, have ever claimed that the material is not a poison; they just claim that their stringent procedures will keep it from poisoning people,” Bergman said. “Big difference.”
The thought that methyl iodide can be used is in some ways built on a narrative that assumes there will be no accidental releases, ever, and that a single day of training for pesticide applicators will be enough to ensure their safety.
In this tale, the tarps that are supposed to remain on the ground treated with Midas for two weeks after fumigation will never rip. No strong winds will ever come along and blow those tarps away. None of the chemical off-gassing from the ground will ever be blown in a single direction—toward, say, a neighborhood or busy road.
Susan Kegley, CEO of the Pesticide Research Institute and consulting scientist for the Pesticide Action Network North America, or PANNA, says the EPA tests assumed methyl iodide off-gasses equally in all directions. “Their science was not given any support from the scientific review committee,” Kegley said. “[The committee] basically shredded everything they had done.”
And though numerous lab studies have shown that methyl iodide exposure kills fetuses in rabbits, the EPA’s study, according to Ted Schettler, a toxicologist and co-author of several books, including Generations at Risk: Reproductive Health and the Environment, focuses mainly on methyl iodide’s effect on the thyroid, given the well-known role that iodine plays in thyroid function. “There are at least four other mechanisms by which methyl iodide can damage a baby’s brain other than its effect on the thyroid, and they haven’t been studied,” Schettler said. “It’s a real deficiency in the data set. [The EPA has] no data on how this chemical would damage a developing fetus. They have the authority to call in this data, but they didn’t.”
But representatives from the EPA told a reporter for this story that the agency’s review was “rigorous,” and amounted to “one of the most thorough analyses ever completed by the EPA for a pesticide registration.”
What is known about methyl iodide is this: It is approximately four times more neurotoxic than methyl bromide, it is a known carcinogen and it’s on the California Proposition 65 list of developmental toxicants. It has been shown to cause developmental toxicity at doses eight times lower than methyl bromide. How exactly methyl iodide could affect farmworkers and surrounding communities is harder to pin down.
“There are a lot of possibilities in between a dead fetus and a healthy one,” Kegley said. She also notes some of the potential damage might not be visible, like lowered IQs. The first and most noticeable effect that would probably be seen locally, she adds, would be a spike in thyroid disease.
Kathleen Collins, a UC Berkeley molecular biologist who spoke about methyl iodide in front of the California state Legislature in 2009, says disposing of methyl iodide in her lab would cost her thousands of dollars. At Cal, methyl iodide is classified as a “zero-release,” class C compound, which means that no amount is allowed to go down the drain. “This is in contrast to hundreds of other chemicals we can dilute. People near farms will have to be near it, but I have to pay to dispose of it.”
Even if drift can be minimized, groundwater contamination is also a major concern with methyl iodide usage, and though state regulators insist protective measures will be extensive, scientists are skeptical. “There’s no way to protect groundwater except not to use it,” Kegley said.
Froines, the lead scientist commissioned by DPR to review its risk assessment, states firmly that there is no safe level for methyl iodide. Testifying at the February 22 hearing, Froines told lawmakers, “There is no question that methyl iodide is profoundly toxic.”
Froines chaired the eight-person scientific committee that peer-reviewed DPR staff’s risk assessment. Though not required by law, DPR “chose to conduct a risk assessment because numerous animal studies showed it posed a potential risk to public health,” says Lea Brooks, DPR spokeswoman. DPR then contracted with Froines for “an independent, objective peer review to affirm the high quality of science used in the risk assessment.”
And Froines thinks highly of the quality of that science. In a 2010 letter to the agency, he wrote, “DPR has taken a highly appropriate public health protective approach throughout this assessment.”
Ruby Reed and Lori Lim, DPR scientists who wrote the agency’s 203-page risk assessment, presented their findings in September 2009. They concluded their PowerPoint presentation advising, “Proposed use of [methyl iodide] in field fumigation results in significant health risks for workers and the general population.”
Their science, Froines maintains, was of a high caliber, but when DPR issued its rules, “Our scientific input was largely ignored.” Reed and Lim subsequently quit their jobs when the department approved methyl iodide,
“There did not seem to be any substantive gap in the views and recommendations of the SRC and the scientific staff of the DPR,” said Scientific Review Committee member Dr. Paul Blanc, who also serves as chief of the division of occupational and environmental medicine at UC San Francisco. “It was only after the fact that administrators within DPR decided to alter our risk estimates,” he said.
But according to Brooks, routine procedure was followed when it came to accepting the SRC’s input: “Peer reviewers were asked only to review scientific and technical matters, leaving policy determinations for DPR. There is never an obligation or even expectation that, as a result of a peer review, all recommended changes will be made.”
The model DPR decided to apply, says Blanc, is “essentially playing Russian roulette with the children of California when it comes to methyl iodide.”
Sentiments about methyl iodide are so strong that Kathryn Gilje, PANNA director, has made the fight against the chemical one of the primary focuses of the organization.
“We don’t come to the bat [against] every pesticide,” she said. “There’s more than a thousand of them. We’re involved in this one because scientists, many of whom are Nobel laureates, are saying this is one of most toxic chemicals on Earth.”
The story seems to be entering its third act—and pending litigation could provide an alternate ending. California Rural Legal Assistance and Earthjustice filed suit against DPR on the grounds that registering methyl iodide violates the California Environmental Quality Act, California Birth Defect Prevention Act and Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act. The suit, filed December 30, 2010, also contends that DPR violated the law requiring involvement of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in developing farmworker safety regulations and made an unlawful finding of emergency with its request for restricted-materials status for methyl iodide.
But if the story continues as Arysta expects, and pesticide applicators begin seeking permits to apply methyl iodide in California within the next few months, Collins, the UC Berkeley molecular biologist, suggests a most succinct ending. Asked how she would react if she lived near a field in Monterey County where Midas was being applied, she says: “I would move.”