As applications of methyl iodide begin, potential health risks of the pesticide remain unknown
Litigation, restricted materials permits, toxicity reports. These represent just some of the red tape involved in the recent registration of methyl iodide, a new pesticide approved for strawberry production by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) in December.
Just before the new year, an alliance of advocacy groups, including the United Farm Workers’ Union, filed suit to block use of the chemical and urged Gov. Jerry Brown to reverse the decision.
Despite these efforts, the potential side effects for farm workers and nearby residents—the people who spend hours every day exposed to these chemicals—remain to be seen. In agricultural hubs such as Watsonville and Salinas, which together produced a volume of nearly 90 million trays of strawberries in 2010, according to the California Strawberry Commission, the new pesticide is sure to have a large presence.
For Carolina Rios, a 17-year-old high school senior at Renaissance High School in Watsonville, the potentially damaging effects of methyl iodide hit profoundly close to home. Both her mother and father work in the fields and her house is located in the midst of agricultural land.
“My house is next to a field,” Rios says. “If you go outside the strawberry fields are right in front in us. We’re surrounded by them.”
Rios is part of a core group of about 15 Renaissance High School students who have mobilized in an effort to reach out to the community—farm workers specifically—by handing out fliers and pamphlets in Spanish outlining the risks of methyl iodide.
“I know [the DPR] has approved it but I have not seen precautions explained in a way that farm workers have access to,” explains Joanna Magdaleno, one of Rios’ peers and fellow organizers from Renaissance High School.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved methyl iodide at the federal level in 2007 as a replacement to the ozone-depleting pesticide methyl bromide. However, California required its own approval process. Despite sizeable opposition, including the disapproval of a DPR-commissioned Scientific Review Committee, the chemical was registered by the DPR alongside stringent safety precautions.
Both methyl bromide and methyl iodide are soil fumigants, or agents applied to the soil to sterilize it prior to the planting of crops. Lea Brooks, spokesperson for the California DPR, explains in an email to Good Times that untrained farm workers will not be involved in the actual application of the chemical, as the law requires it to be done by individuals with extensive safety training and special permits. The DPR stated in a December press release that with additional safety regulations that are much stricter than the EPA’s federal standard, the pesticide “can be used without exposing workers and the public to harmful levels.”
“These restrictions are designed to protect workers and the public from harmful levels of methyl iodide,” Brooks says. “Generally, these restrictions include stricter buffer zones, a requirement that only DPR-approved highly retentive tarps be used, reduced application rates and stronger protections for workers.”
Dvera Saxton, a doctoral candidate at American University in anthropology, is completing a dissertation studying how the methyl iodide controversy is being handled on both sides of the issue. She explains that in addition to the language barrier that often prevents many farm workers from understanding the risks, conditions in the field can prevent safety precautions from being followed properly.
“I don’t think something can be used safely if people don’t know what they’re working with,” says Saxton. “Farm workers who rip up the tarps don’t necessarily know what they’re being exposed to. A lot of times workers aren’t offered protective gear and, even if they are, it feels burdensome to wear so they don’t.”
The first applications of methyl iodide are only just beginning, and Saxton fears that potential cases of pesticide poisoning may go undiagnosed. According to Saxton, symptoms of the condition are similar to the flu. Furthermore, she says, the financial burden of healthcare without insurance prevents many farm workers from going to the doctor.
“The kind of healthcare that farm workers get is either nothing, because they cant afford to go, or sometimes growers have corporate sponsorships which provide clinics,” Saxton said.
In terms of the DPR’s culpability when it comes to pesticide sickness, Brooks pointed to Senate Bill 391, passed in 2004, which states that the “law squarely places the financial burden to pay for acute medical costs on those businesses that are responsible for the harm.” Passage of the law was prompted by incidences in which those without medical insurance were made sick from pesticide residues.
Even if care for acute conditions is covered, Saxton worries about the long-term consequences for people who have little choice outside of working and living in and around agricultural fields every day.
“Having work is a priority even if it’s not the safest work,” Saxton says. “This stuff people are being exposed to at low doses over long periods of time ... they could slowly deteriorate.”
Although potential side effects have yet to manifest, Rios sees the use of methyl iodide as damaging to herself, her family and her community as a whole.
“I don’t think there’s going be any more work if people keep getting sick,” she says. “Where are they going to work? How are they going to pay their prescriptions?”
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