State looks at new strawberry pesticide

August 19, 2009 6:38:40 PM PDT
A controversial chemical is being considered to control pests in California's strawberry fields. It's already used in other states, but health experts are questioning the pesticide's safety and raised concerns during a special legislative hearing in Sacramento today.

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State regulators are reviewing a controversial chemical for use in California's strawberry fields.

A new pesticide is needed because the current one, methyl bromide, is an ozone-depleting fumigant that's being phased out through an international agreement.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation may replace it with methyl iodide. Lab tests on animals have linked the compound to cancer, thyroid problems, miscarriages and nerve damage.

An Assembly Committee is looking into what effects the pesticide could have on workers in the fields. University of California scientists warned lawmakers methyl iodide is so dangerous they can't let the chemical touch anything outside of a lab.

"It is a zero release compound. It is a Class 'C' toxin, way higher than any radio activity that we use," says Professor Kathleen Collins, Ph.D., an UC Berkeley molecular biologist.

Ironically, it was U.C. Riverside that invented methyl iodide. The company that makes the new pesticide says it is safe when handled properly. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency poured over numerous research backing up that claim before approving it in 2007; 47 other state subsequently approved the use of methyl iodide.

"That gives us the ability to stand behind our product and know that it can be used and is being used in the Southeast safely, and workers protected, and education is there," says Michael Allan from Arysta LifeScience.

Strawberry growers are anxious for an alternative to kill pests. Federal law requires them to set up buffer zones and ban workers from going onto a field for 48 hours after methyl iodide is used. But neighbors say those precautions don't always protect people living near the fields.

"And it just doesn't seem right for a pesticide company to make a little bit of extra money that entire communities are put in danger," says Marilyn Lynds, a Monterey County resident who lives near strawberry fields.

The state will decide whether to approve methyl iodide use by the end of the year.

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