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Face-off over fumigant: Will California approve methyl iodide?

Strawbworkers

Scientists and activists faced off with growers and the chemical industry at a California Assembly labor committee hearing Wednesday about the fumigant methyl iodide, a known carcinogen under consideration for use on California fields.

Growers of strawberries, ornamental plants and other crops want the chemical approved as a replacement for methyl bromide, an ozone-depleting chemical banned under an international treaty. But worker advocates are concerned that the fumigant may increase the risk of miscarriage, cancer and thyroid toxicity.

Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Carmel), chairman of the labor committee, said he convened the hearing to raise the issue "to a level of transparency and public scrutiny that is absolutely necessary and appropriate given the potential risks posed by this chemical." Monning had voiced concern that the Department of Pesticide Regulation was fast tracking approval of methyl iodide.

"If it poses worker safety risk, then we have to decide, do we have our priorities right?" Monning said in a phone interview following the hearing. "You can't go backwards with cancer, birth defects or unintended health impacts."

Methyl iodide has already been approved for use by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and every other state except Washington and New York. At Wednesday's hearing, agricultural industry representatives voiced impatience with California, where the review process is still underway. 

The state Department of Pesticide Regulation, which is charged with determining whether the chemical can be used in the state, reaffirmed its commitment to an external review process and a public hearing on the chemical, scheduled for the end of September.

"California is unique," Monning said. "We have different growing conditions; we have different concentrations of rural residents living next to fields."

He added: "We have a process that we should be proud of. Part of this hearing today is to protect the integrity of that process."

--Amy Littlefield

Photo: Legislators and community activists worry that workers who pick strawberries and other crops could be sickened by the fumigant methyl iodide if California approves the chemical for use. Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times

 
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