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In The News Pesticide's Use in County Now Up to State Officials
By Stephanie Hoops (Contact)
Ventura County Star, Sunday, October 7, 2007

With the Environmental Protection Agency giving its blessing for a controversial new pesticide Friday, eyes are turning to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation to see if it will allow methyl iodide to be used on California farms, even though 54 of the nation's top scientists warn of dire consequences.

"I hope they will never register this chemical as a pesticide," Susan Kegley, senior scientist at the environmental group Pesticide Action Network North America, said Saturday.

Methyl iodide would replace methyl bromide, an odorless, colorless gas used to fumigate strawberries and other crops. Since the ban on methyl bromide, the search for a replacement has confounded California growers, who have spent millions researching alternatives.

The issue is critical to Ventura County, where strawberries are the top revenue- generator among all crops in the county, generating a $366 million industry a year.

It's anyone's guess what the state agency will do. State officials were not reachable Saturday and won't be until Tuesday, as offices are closed Monday for Columbus Day.

A letter DPR submitted to the EPA in February did express concerns that the chemical would be toxic to humans.

The scientists, among whom are six Nobel Prize winners, say methyl iodide, also known as iodomethane, is extremely dangerous.

"If you get it on your skin, it causes blisters," said Dr. Ted Schettler, director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, speaking from Ann Arbor, Mich. "If you breathe it into your lungs, it causes severe respiratory problems. Every chemist that I've talked to is highly concerned about putting hundreds of pounds of this chemical on land anywhere near communities."

Scientists who have spoken out believe that industry has had undue influence in the EPA's decision.

The pesticide's manufacturer is Tokyo-based Arysta LifeScience Corp. On Friday, the EPA said Arysta's president and chief executive officer, Elin Miller, was leaving the company to be the EPA's new Region 10 Administrator.

The EPA's stamp of endorsement will also likely have a positive effect on Arysta's value at a time when Arysta is being eyed for acquisition.

Last month, MSN Business reported that "United Phosphorus and Tata Group enterprise Rallis India are in the race to acquire the world's largest privately held crop protection and life sciences firm, Arysta LifeScience Corporation, from private equity firm Olympus Capital Holdings."

Kegley suspects there's something more to the EPA's decision, but she doesn't know exactly what.

"I'm very curious as to why the EPA is making it a priority to help a Japanese-owned company to get its product to market," she said.

If methyl iodide does get approved and farmers want to use it Ventura County would be affected because of its large strawberry industry.

"Ventura County is the one place that is really going to suffer from this if it gets registered in California," Kegley said. "So many strawberries in such a small area."

The EPA tested it in Ventura County, Kegley said. Two unidentified Ventura County farms were used involving 10 acres, and the EPA concluded it posed no unreasonable risks.

The EPA's finding of no unreasonable risks surprised Dr. Robert Bergman, a professor at UC Berkeley's chemistry department who led the effort by scientists to persuade the EPA to reject methyl iodide.

"I had a son who lived in Ventura, and I've driven around the town quite a bit," he said. "There are housing developments right up against fields and pesticides being applied and covered with tarps that are right next to roads. It just seems inevitable to me that when it's that close that there's going to be exposure."

If it works and isn't too expensive, at least one county farmer the only one reached Saturday says he'll use it.

Ed Terry grows strawberries at Terry Farms in midtown Ventura and is considering using methyl iodide, despite the alarm of scientists.

"The guys I've talked to who have just as many Ph.Ds as those guys say that when used properly it should be fine," he said. "It's no different than when you use Raid in your kitchen. You don't just spray it everywhere."

Within the EPA itself, scientists have also expressed concern about the dangers posed by methyl iodide. Using their union as their voice, they asserted in a letter sent to the EPA administrator in May 2006 that they felt "besieged by political pressure exerted by Agency officials perceived to be too closely aligned with the pesticide industry and former EPA officials now representing the pesticide and agricultural community."

Spokespeople for the EPA were not reachable Saturday for comment.

Using methyl iodide
Documentation in favor of using methyl iodide.

Documentation opposed to using methyl iodide.

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