Coalition Sues California Over Approval of Cancer-Causing Strawberry Pesticide

For Immediate Release

Environmental Groups
Contact: 

Tracey Brieger, Californians for Pesticide Reform, 415-215-5473, tracey@pesticidereform.org
Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, 202-384-7157, ksutcliffe@earthjustice.org

Coalition Sues California Over Approval of Cancer-Causing Strawberry Pesticide

52,000 comments submitted urging Governor Brown to reverse decision

SAN FRANCISCO - On Governor Brown’s first day in office, a coalition of  farmworkers,
community advocates and environmental health organizations are
announcing a lawsuit to challenge the state's approval of the
cancer-causing strawberry pesticide methyl iodide. Several of the
organizations also submitted comments from over 52,000 members of the
public urging him to act quickly to prevent the use of methyl iodide in
California’s fields.

The lawsuit [http://earthjustice.org/documents/legal-document/pdf/mei-final-petition]
was filed late Thursday by Earthjustice and California Rural Legal
Assistance, Inc. on behalf of Pesticide Action Network North America,
United Farm Workers of America, Californians for Pesticide Reform,
Pesticide Watch Education Fund, Worksafe, Communities and Children,
Advocates Against Pesticide Poisoning and farmworkers Jose Hidalgo Ramon
and Zeferino Estrada.

The suit challenges the state Department of Pesticide Regulation’s (DPR)
December 20 approval of methyl iodide for use in California on the
grounds that it violates the California Environmental Quality Act, the
California Birth Defects Prevention Act, and the Pesticide Contamination
Prevention Act that protects groundwater against pesticide pollution.
In addition, the suit contends that DPR violated the law requiring
involvement of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment
(OEHHA) in the development of farmworker safety regulations and made an
unlawful finding of emergency with its request for Restricted Materials
status for methyl iodide.

“The public has been shocked, wondering how methyl iodide could be
approved under California law. The truth is that DPR played too fast and
loose with their decision,” said Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie.
“They exceeded their legal authority and have put the public and
farmworkers at great risk of harm.”

In deciding to approve methyl iodide, DPR shunned the findings of top
scientists—including the state’s own Scientific Review Committee—who
have consistently said that the chemical is too dangerous to be used in
agriculture. Upon hearing the decision, Dr. John Froines, chair of the
Committee, told press, “I honestly think that this chemical will cause
disease and illness. And so does everyone else on the committee.”

Theodore Slotkin, another panel member and professor of pharmacology and
cancer biology at Duke University, wrote, “It is my personal opinion
that this decision will result in serious harm to California citizens,
and most especially to children.”

“Farmworkers are on the front lines of methyl iodide use and will suffer
the most tragic consequences,” observed Erik Nicholson, National
Vice-President of United Farm Workers. “If this decision is allowed to
stand, strawberries may very well become the new poster child for giving
farmworkers cancer and late term miscarriages.”

Crumbling under pressure from an intensive pro-methyl-iodide lobbying
campaign run by Arysta LifeScience—methyl iodide’s manufacturer and the
largest privately held pesticide company in the world—DPR fast-tracked
the registration process by declaring an “emergency.” DPR’s only stated
explanation for the “emergency” was that it wanted to register methyl
iodide on December 20.

“DPR created a political ‘emergency’ by insisting on locking-in its
decision before a new administration takes office – an administration
that would follow the science instead of catering to the largest private
agrochemical corporation in the world,” said Mike Meuter, Attorney at
California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. “DPR’s move has no legal basis:
political convenience does not constitute an emergency.”

The ‘emergency’ registration blocked the otherwise necessary public
comment period on the decision, despite the public’s strong desire for
input. Last summer, over 53,000 people urged California not to legalize
the pesticide. Today, an additional 52,000 comments were submitted by
Pesticide Action Network North America, Breast Cancer Action, CREDO,
Food and Water Watch and others urging Governor Brown to reverse the
decision to register methyl iodide.

“We expect Governor Brown to do much better than his predecessor, whose
environmental legacy is defined by hypocrisy,” said Paul Towers, State
Director of Pesticide Watch Education Fund. “Schwarzenegger’s move to
promote the elimination of plastic bags but approve—on the very same
day—the use of one of the most toxic chemicals on earth in California’s
fields has permanently tarnished his environmental record.”

Methyl iodide causes late term miscarriages, contaminates groundwater
and is so reliably carcinogenic that it’s used to create cancer cells in
laboratories. It is included in California’s Proposition 65 list of
“chemicals known to cause cancer.” The pesticide poses the most direct
risks to farm workers and neighboring communities because of the volume
that would be applied to fields and its tendency to drift off site
through the air.

The chemical is approved to be applied to California’s strawberry fields
at rates up to 100 pounds per acre on much of the state’s 38,000 acres
in strawberry production, totaling millions of pounds of use. Though
methyl iodide will likely be used primarily on strawberries, it is also
registered for use on tomatoes, peppers, nurseries and on soils prior to
replanting orchards and vineyards.

“It’s farmworkers like me who become sick,” said plaintiff Jose Hidalgo.
“As a strawberry picker, I have worked near many pesticide
applications. First we smell the pesticides. Then our eyes burn, our
noses run and our throats hurt. I’m against using methyl iodide because
it’s already too dangerous in the fields, we don’t need new, even more
dangerous, toxins.”

“Living near California’s strawberry fields just became even more
deadly,” commented Lynda Uvari, Founding Board Member of Community and
Children’s Advocates Against Pesticide Poisoning, a community group in
Ventura County. “Will Arysta and DPR be there to help when people in our
communities get cancer or lose their babies?”

“Given the special susceptibility of adolescents to this developmental
toxicant, methyl iodide poses a special health risk to teenage children
working in the fields or exposed to drift,” declared Lora Jo Foo, Legal
Director of Worksafe.

In the last days of the Bush Administration in 2007, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved methyl iodide at the
national level, ignoring concerns from over 50 eminent
scientists—including six Nobel Laureates in Chemistry—who expressed
astonishment in a letter to U.S. EPA that the agency was “working to
legalize broadcast releases of one of the more toxic chemicals used in
manufacturing into the environment.”

Arysta LifeScience pushed to secure registration of the pesticide in
California because it is one of the most lucrative pesticide markets in
the nation. New York and Washington states refused to register methyl
iodide for agricultural purposes.

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