Effect Measure

Fumigating the soil before planting pretty much kills any pests that might be in it. Unfortunately the fumigant tends to seep up through the soil and expose workers and others nearby. When the highly toxic fumigant methyl bromide was banned under the Montreal protocol as a greenhouse gas an ozone depleting gas, growers started looking for a replacement. Now the EPA has approved one, methyl iodide. If you know any chemistry, you might suspect that replacing one halogen with another might not solve the problem. Indeed methyl iodide is nasty. If you want to use it you must employ a certified applicator, establish a buffer zone of 25 to 500 feet around the fields, no use within a quarter mile of a school, day care facility, nursing home, hospital, prison or playground. And if you are a shoveler, tractor driver or applicator you have to be trained and you have to wear a respirator. Farm workers can’t re-enter the fields for five days after application.

The EPA seems satisfied that these precautions will all be honored and are themselves sufficient. Not everyone agrees:

Despite the protests of more than 50 scientists, including five Nobel laureates in chemistry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday approved use of a new, highly toxic fumigant, mainly for strawberry fields.

The new pesticide, methyl iodide, is designed for growers, mainly in California and Florida, who need to replace methyl bromide, which has been banned under an international treaty because it damages the Earth’s ozone layer.

[snip]

In a letter sent last month to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, 54 scientists, mostly chemists, warned that “pregnant women and the fetus, children, the elderly, farmworkers and other people living near application sites would be at serious risk.”

Methyl iodide is a neurotoxin and carcinogen that has caused thyroid tumors, neurological damage and miscarriages in lab animals.

But EPA officials said Friday that they carefully evaluated the risks and decided to approve its use for one year, imposing restrictions such as buffer zones to protect farmworkers and neighbors.

“We are confident that by conducting such a rigorous analysis and developing highly restrictive provisions governing its use, there will be no risks of concern,” EPA Assistant Administrator Jim Gulliford said in a letter sent Friday to the scientists. (LA Times)

One reason the chemists were so concerned is that they have first hand experienced with methyl iodide:

Many of the chemists — who use small amounts of methyl iodide in their laboratories to attach molecules and are careful to avoid exposure — said they are shocked that the EPA is allowing its use as a pesticide because it can drift into neighborhoods and pollute groundwater.

“It is potentially really toxic, and it’s certainly very reactive. From what we know about its chemistry, we know this stuff reacts with DNA. It mutates it. So it’s prudent to be as careful as you can with it,” [Robert Bergman, the Gerald E. K. Branch Distinguished Professor at UC Berkeley’s chemistry department] said in an interview Friday.

Of course EPA has its own experts on methyl iodide:

The manufacturer, Arysta, has spent eight years and more than $11 million collecting toxicological and environmental data to persuade the EPA to register methyl iodide as a pesticide.

Arysta’s former chief executive, Elin Miller, is now a top official at the EPA and was appointed administrator of its northwest region last year.

It’s not clear how much methyl iodide will be in use because California, along with Florida the chief venue for its use on strawberry fields, has yet to license it and it says it will take its own sweet time in doing so. The restrictions are expensive, another disincentive for use. Finally, the EPA is overhauling its regulations for all fumigants, so they only licensed it for one year.

So what’s the hurry? Once licensed and in use it becomes harder to discontinue. In a year they can include it with all the other fumigants. Just in time to get it all done before the next administration. That’s the hurry.

Comments

  1. #1 Marissa
    October 9, 2007

    Most methyl-X compounds will do a nice job of methylating your DNA amongst other nasty things. This would be a really retro step if it’s approved.

  2. #2 Mike
    October 9, 2007

    There’s your problem:

    “Arysta’s former chief executive, Elin Miller, is now a top official at the EPA and was appointed administrator of its northwest region last year.”

    Ding Ding Ding, conflict of interest anyone!

  3. #3 blf
    October 9, 2007

    Fumigating the soil would also kill most beneficial critters, such as earthworms, wouldn’t it? Even ignoring the obvious potential for water contamination and toxic effects on humans et al., this stuff sounds like an excellent way to create a desert. And require the use of more oil-based fertilizers, extensive plowing, and so on.

  4. #4 Gerard Harbison
    October 9, 2007

    Well, let’s see, the Montreal Protocol banned ozone-depleting chemicals, not greenhouse gases. Methyl bromide is actually still in use in the US, under a critical use exemption. Replacing the bromine with an iodine does solve the problem, because methyl iodide (iodomethane) decomposes quickly on exposure to light, and so doesn’t make it to the stratosphere. In fact, since methyl iodide will replace methyl bromide,, it will lessen ozone-depletion. And methyl bromide, used to the tune of 4 thousand tons a year in California, is also a methylating agent.

  5. #5 Gerard Harbison
    October 9, 2007

    blf:

    They fumigate the soil already. Methyl iodide will simply replace the current soil fumigant, methyl bromide, which is also an ozone-depleting gas.

  6. #6 KevinC
    October 9, 2007

    And fumigating fields kills everything thus requiring tons of petro based fertilizer. The farmers need to farm for themselves and quit letting the fertilizer, pesticide and seed companies to tell them how to farm.

    The green revolution, Monsonto’s and Dow’s best ad campaign every.

  7. #7 revere
    October 9, 2007

    Gerard: That was my error. Late at night.

  8. #8 David Harmon
    October 9, 2007

    And as usual, the real problem is the underlying attitude: “We’ve got some bugs that are getting uppity, so we’re going to kill everything in the vicinity, just rather than actually pay attention to what’s going on in our fields”.

  9. #9 M. Randolph Kruger
    October 9, 2007

    They might have been concentrating on this one a bit more than methyl I. BTW-Here is how it works. They go until that particular train wont go any farther. Then the take the next train until it wont go either. Then they have to come up with the real fix.

    I really dont know what the answer to the above is Revere. We enjoy a bountiful crop pretty much everywhere and people got to eat. They keep on saying no you cant use that, then they come up with something that is as questionable as the other. No tests means its not on some list somewhere, so you can use it, or because of that you get it approved.

    Its a toxic substance. Its supposed to be. Its supposed to kill pests and it indirectly kills us. We cant just use harsh language on the bugs or we dont eat. Even putting everything into a hydroponics garden causes eco problems starting with the water discharges from the places and covering the ground so that water wont enter the water table. All bad, no matter what we do or dont.

    Ozone depletion is a natural function. I am looking for a paper that I saw years ago that stated that if you took all of the known depletion gas emissions that it would only account for about 3% of the drop in ozone. It also went on to say that some other processes must be at work and that we are generating ozone at the surface at a much higher level than the depletion. Low altitude ozone levels as I read it were much higher than they were even in the 1960’s IGY. That gas was asserted to be rising and if it gets into the upper atmosphere, could reduce sunlight tremendously. Reverse to global warming.

    Here is one you’ll like Revere.

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,300343,00.html

  10. #10 Hank Roberts
    October 9, 2007

    Hey, if you don’t believe in evolution, then mutagens can’t hurt your customers, or your farmworkers.

    Doesn’t that make sense?

  11. #11 Ron
    October 9, 2007

    I just can’t believe this is happening in the 21st Century. As several have pointed out, fumigating kills just about everything in the soil. That leaves the petrochemicals to provide the nutrientes in your food, which of course they can’t. Result is overfed and undernourished people who get fat and live a long time while suffering from diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Ah modern life…and we let them do this?

  12. #12 Marilyn
    May 5, 2009

    We still have a chance to stop methyl iodide from being approved in California. IT is much easier to stop it before it starts.
    If you live in California, please let your local assemblymen, congressmen etc, know that you want their help in stopping this and that you vote. If you live in a rural county,this is of particular importance.
    Whereever you live, find out what kinds of conventional produce uses fumigants(methyl bromide, methyl iodide, telone, cloropicrin) and if you buy nothing else organic, buy only organic for these fruits and vegetables(strawberries and yams come to mind). Let your local grocer that you would appreciate them carrying organic produce and why. Do what you can to discourage their carrying conventionally grown strawberries.
    If you happen to have the misfortune of living or working near farms that use fumigants, you need to protect yourself, while fighting the applications of fumigants you need to insist that you and yours are notified of applications and GET OUT. Stay where you can, make sure to let the press know that you and your neighbors have been displaced, if anyone cannot leave, make sure that their health is well documented, even minor symptoms must be noted. Remember, many of the cancers that these pesticides are known to cause can take years, even decades to show.
    Even if you are not concerned with pesticides in general, these are a whole different kind of poison. The United States needs to follow the lead of the European Union and proctect it’s citizens from these awful poisons.

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