The Terminator: Schwarzenegger's Killer Pesticide

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In the days before he left office, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration planted a chemical time bomb in California strawberry fields that, if not defused, could cause cancer, thyroid toxicity, permanent neurological damage, and miscarriages, according to 54 distinguished chemists, including five Nobel laureates (PDF).

The chemical in question is called methyl iodide (or iodomethane) and is marketed under the trade name MIDAS by Arysta LifeScience, a Tokyo-based firm that is the world's largest privately held agrichemical company. Methyl iodide is a fumigant that is injected into fields before planting to kill insects, microorganisms, fungi, weed seeds—virtually every living organism.

It's worth noting that when scientists want to create experimental cancer cells in the laboratory they use methyl iodide.

Claiming that it can also kill the humans who handle it or are unfortunate enough to live in the vicinity of farms (PDF), a group of farm workers and environmental health organizations filed suit late last year to reverse California's Department of Pesticide Regulation's approval of methyl iodide's use.

"We are going to court to challenge the last-minute approval of this cancer-causing pesticide," said Paul Towers, director of Pesticide Watch Education Fund, a public health and environmental organization that is one of the plaintiffs. "The department did this despite the state's own Scientific Review Committee's unanimous warning that it was too toxic to be let out of the laboratory."

The suit claims that the Department of Pesticide Regulation violated the California Environmental Quality Act, Birth Defects Prevention Act, and Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act.

But the plaintiffs are also taking aim at the tactics officials used to get the approval through before the arrival of a new, perhaps less agribusiness-friendly administration. Realizing they hadn't left themselves enough time to fully implement the approval process before Governor Jerry Brown was sworn in, they declared an "emergency." Under the law, registration of pesticides for restricted use can be fast-tracked in California in emergency situations.

"They created their own emergency," said Greg Loarie, an attorney at Earthjustice, a public-interest law firm that is handling the case. "They didn't have to register methyl iodide. They could have waited; they just didn't want to. So our lawsuit claims that the purported emergency is bogus."

Interest in methyl iodide has risen as a result of the phasing-out of methyl bromide, chemical agriculture's fumigant du-jour until it began to be eliminated in the 1990s because of the severe damage it caused to the stratosphere's ozone layer. In terms of human health, however, the changeover represented a leap from the frying pan into the fire.

When the Bush-era Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was considering allowing methyl iodide's use as a pesticide, the 54 chemists mentioned earlier in this post sent the agency a detailed letter that was at times scathing and at others pleading (PDF). "Agents like methyl iodide are extraordinarily well-known cancer hazards in the chemical community," they wrote. "Because of methyl iodide's high volatility and water solubility, broad use of this chemical in agriculture will guarantee substantial releases to air, surface waters, and ground water, and will result in exposures for many people."


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The researchers concluded: "It is astounding then that the Office of Pesticide Programs is working to legalize one of the more toxic chemicals used in manufacturing into the environment."

It's worth noting that when scientists want to create experimental cancer cells in the laboratory they use methyl iodide.

But warnings from members of the scientific community—even Nobel Prize winners—went unheard at the EPA, which cleared the way for methyl iodide's use in the 46 states that don't have their own environmental protection units. Of the four states that do, New York and Washington refused to allow it. Florida and California have given the chemical their blessing.

As part of its approval of the new fumigant, Florida required that Arysta monitor air and groundwater quality near sites where it was applied. The early results showed potentially dangerous levels of the chemical and its byproducts in the air and water.

For the time being, California's decision to approve the chemical is something of a moot point. Fumigants are not typically applied during the winter. Come spring, Loarie is not ruling out using a legal injunction to stop methyl iodide's use until the Department of Pesticide Regulation obeys the law.


Correction: This piece originally included several references to methyl bromide when it should have referred to methyl iodide.

Presented by

Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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