Suit challenges Calif. approval of farm pesticide

This May 13, 2010 photo shows strawberries growing in a field, in Ventura, Calif. California's strawberry fields have become the latest battleground in an ongoing series of skirmishes over pesticide use. Growers say they need state regulators to approve the use of the fumigant methyl iodide as a replacement for methyl bromide, which is being phased out to meet federal environmental guidelines. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

January 3, 2011 9:16:18 PM PST
Several environmental groups, the United Farm Workers Union and two field workers have filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court to stop the introduction of a new pesticide, methyl iodide, which is used to treat soil prior to planting strawberries and other crops. They argue that methyl iodide causes cancer in laboratory animals and would be harmful to field workers. The state's Department of Pesticide Regulation approved the use of methyl iodide in early December.

Methyl iodide is a substitute for methyl bromide, which was banned because its use depletes the ozone. According to the court filing, methyl iodide is classified as a known carcinogen by the state and a hazardous air pollutant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Sarah Jackson, research and policy associate with Earthjustice in Oakland, which co-filed the suit with California Rural Legal Assistance, told ABC7 News that the Department of Pesticide Regulation timed approval of methyl iodide before the term of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor ended.

"It can cause slurred speech, it can cause vomiting, immediately burning eyes and nose. In the long term it can cause severe and irreversible central nervous system damage. It causes fetal miscarriage," said Jackson.

The California Strawberry Commission, based in Watsonville, described methyl iodide as a tool in a large tool chest of options. Local county agriculture commissioners would have authority over where and how methyl iodide is applied to the soil. It kills weeds, insects and bacteria prior to planting. The Commission, to which all strawberry growers must belong, has funded research on other kinds of fumigants.

The earliest methyl iodide is likely to be used is this summer in preparation for the next planting of strawberries. The lawsuit filed Monday seeks an injunction to prevent its application until the court reviews the case and issues a judgment.