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Get Your Neurotoxin Off My Strawberry

I apologize in advance for what promises to be an angry post, but everyone has a line, and I draw mine at toxic strawberries.

In case you haven't heard, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) recently decided that the soil in which some 90% of the nation's strawberries are grown may now be treated with the known carcinogen and neurotoxin methyl iodide, or MeI. How bad is this stuff? Well, for starters, use when they want to create cancerous cells in the lab... Read More >>

I apologize in advance for what promises to be an angry post, but everyone has a line, and I draw mine at toxic strawberries.

In case you haven’t heard, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) recently decided that the soil in which some 90% of the nation’s strawberries are grown may now be treated with the known carcinogen and neurotoxin methyl iodide, or MeI. How bad is this stuff? Well, for starters, it’s what scientists use when they want to create cancerous cells in the lab; it also causes brain damage and miscarriage, but who’s counting? Certainly not the DPR, who just rubber-stamped its use over the advice of their own scientific review panel, nor Arysta LifeScience Corp., the agri-chem company that requested the approval and manufactures the stuff under the perversely ironic “Midas” label. But if you really want to get your knickers in a twist, consider the stratospheric hypocrisy of the DPR, Arysta, and the subset of growers who rammed the approval through on a highly accelerated, “emergency” basis: MeI has been on the State of California’s own Prop 65 Safe Water and Toxic Enforcement Act list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity for nearly a quarter-century. By our very State! Since 1988!

You’ll also hear this crowd’s vociferous insistence that the stuff will only be used in small quantities and will not be applied directly to the fruit, in case that makes you feel better; that line of argument did not, however, sway the 54 scientists and chemists who pleaded on the deaf ears of the Bush-era EPA when it conferred its Federal blessing:

Agents like methyl iodide are extraordinarily well-known cancer hazards in the chemical community. Because of methyl iodide’s high volatility and water solubility, broad use of this chemical in agriculture will guarantee substantial releases to air, surface waters, and ground water, and will result in exposures for many people.

I don’t know about you, but words like “guarantee”, “substantial”, and “exposure” make me nervous, at least when we’re talking about deadly poison. Granted, I’m a nervous Jew and prone to over-reaction, but I’ve got company, from American Public Media to The Atlantic, because it only gets worse when you confront the hard data: The legal limits for exposure as set by the DPR are on the order of 1oo times the “safe” levels as determined by the DPR’s own scientists.

Reasonable people might wonder how this all happened, in plain view of otherwise sane strawberry eaters everywhere. As environmental studies professor and blogger Envo explains, much of the blame lies with the process itself, the asymmetric force of the few on the levers of governance, the willful ignorance of DPR director Mary-Ann Warmerdam, and our misguided moral certitude about the sanctity of farmers’ wallets; collectively, they support a regulatory calculus in which the henhouse is beholden entirely to foxes. But the backstory, which you won’t get from the PC Elite, is nearly as troubling, another unintended consequence of our monolithic endorsement of whatever sounds most “green” at the moment; an inconvenient truth perhaps, but the door to MeI was initially flung open, not by chemical companies or farm lobbyists, but by the mandated phaseout of the ozone-depleting pesticide methyl bromide, in accordance with the Clean Air Act and the Montreal Protocol. As the Cornell Extension Toxicology Network explains,

The methyl bromide phaseout is due to action under the Clean Air Act… [The] Clean Air Act does not contain a risk/benefit balancing process that would allow retention of essential or high benefit uses, nor does the listing and phaseout of ozone depleters depend on the availability of alternative products.

In other words, in all our well-meaning myopia, we rushed headlong into a deal with a devil we didn’t know, who – like, say, corn-based ethanol or bailout financing – has now come back to take a super-sized bite out of our strawberry-loving asses.

It’s not that our fully-paid-up government overseers have again failed us – that I cynically accept as the chronic inevitability of life in a bloated nanny state – it’s the brazenness with which they’ve done it, the wanton whoring to special interests at the expense of hard science and the humanity of those they ostensibly serve, that has me so riled. That they’ve done so aided and abetted by the economic illiteracy of the environmentalist agenda just makes me plain batty. [Note: Despite the “emergency” approval, fumigants are not typically applied during the winter months, so there may be a window of time during which either the EPA or Governor Brown can do something. Consider signing either this petition, or this.]

[Graphic credits: Change.org, Wikipedia, and NPR]

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Comments

24 thoughts on “Get Your Neurotoxin Off My Strawberry

  1. I forgot to post that I am one of authors on the patent held by the University of California and the person who first proposed the use of methyl iodide as a soil fumigant.

    1. @Jim – Firstly, thank you for contributing to this thread on a reasoned basis. That being said, I’ve spent significant time on both DPR and EPA websites, and there can be a world of difference between providing an answer, and providing an adequate one. Finally, I think it’s entirely fair to presume some bias on the part of both you and Mr Dolezal – which, and I respect this greatly, you come right out and clarify, but doesn’t change the fact. My considered view is that the risk/reward for MeI is entirely upside down, and that the DPR’s approval process remains deeply suspect. But I’ll keep posting the links, and let the readers decide.

  2. First, methyl iodide is a liquid boiling at 108 degrees F. Water boils at 100 degrees F. Your idea that it is a gas has been posted on the PAN web site and like much else on that site is wrong. That misconception has been repeated ad nauseum by the kool aid drinkers in the environmental junkies.

    Second, pay attention to Mr. Dolezal. His a voice of reason.

    Concerning the letter to the EPA by 57 or so scientists, their concerns were answered by the EPA in detail and that is posted on the EPA web site.

    Most for your other facts should be checked on the California DPR web site which has all the data your might want to read.

    If you have any questions send them to me and I will answer them.

  3. Fair question. I became involved in the methyl iodide issue and testified at many of the hearings in Sacramento on behalf of the California Nursery Industry when members of their association learned that methyl bromide, another fumigant, was being phased out and that they would no longer be able to grow a variety of fruit, nut, and vine starts for orchards, produce growers, and vineyards that met the state’s stringent requirement that such nursery stock be 100% free of harmful nematodes–an impossible task without a soil fumigant. I left employment with the nursery association in September, 2010 but remain interested in the debate. I have authored over 40 books and have edited more than 500 others over a 30 year career in publishing, including my first book, “Exploring Redwood National Park.” Science is appealing to me because everyone’s biases get a thorough airing by open peer review. That aspect of this debate is seemingly lost on those who repeat blind assertions without substantiation or even casual checking of fact. An informed citizenry needs all viewpoints, all facts, and active debate, not name-calling. I hope that this answers your question.

    1. I would like to acknowledge publicly my deep appreciation for dissent such as Mr Dolezal’s, and to invite others to follow his lead: He may disagree vehemently with what I’ve written, but he responds with hard data, under his own name, and in a civil manner. So this, an official PK tip-of-the-hat, to vexatious, polite, and well-informed comment-contributors everywhere. Without you, the blogosphere is just noise. (@RD – check your inbox)

  4. The website is misbehaving, so I am continuing my response to your questions. You can find exactly what pesticide residues have been found for virtually every food grown and for many years into the past at the following website: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/pdp. When you download this data and sort it for strawberries, you will find zero detections of methyl iodide and any other soil fumigant.

    Sorry that you somehow equate use of a product to prevent harmful plant diseases, pests, and weeds from destroying crops and reducing yields with eating a little bit of poison. In truth, use of these fumigants means that it’s unnecessary to apply many of the other crop protection products on the plants and fruit later in the season. So using a fumigant before planting means that the fruit you eat has much less likelihood of any residue, not more. The environment benefits from avoiding use of bug-, disease-, and weed-killers–something everyone is striving to avoid. So I have to ask, which is better: applying a crop-saving fungicide weeks before planting when there are no regular farm workers in the fields or its alternative?

  5. Sigh. It’s so cheap to post charges without reference or substantiation other than your personal guarantee. As for documentation, the citations are well documented in the original and subsequent risk assessments performed by DPR and in the public comments made by US-EPA and other authoritative sources. See as a starting point: http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/risk/mei/appendices_a-c.pdf as it contains specific refutation of many of your claims. All of the other elements of the risk assessment are on the California DPR website at http://www.cdpr.ca.gov and available for you and everyone else to read.

    Next read the transmittal memorandum sent by the SRC to DPR that commends the DPR for going beyond the US-EPA and on the quality and “scientifically rigorous” base documentation employed in reaching its risk assessment: http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/emon/pubs/tac/tacpdfs/sulfluor/srp_findings.pdf

    The challenge is when you rely for your guidance on the SRC–not to perform its chartered work, but when to speculate in a spectacular fashion on matters beyond that charter. At the public hearing held by the SRC, they actually congratulated a witness for building a case with self-described “imaginary data” that bolstered false assumptions disproved by actual peer-reviewed science.

    But to get to the points that seem to concern you most, “drift into the air and groundwater”, the product is injected into the soil before planting as a liquid that quickly volatilizes (in minutes) to a gas. It expands and moves up towards the atmosphere, where it encounters a specially designed plastic tarp of virtually impenetrable film and is trapped in the air-soil interface. Only a tiny fraction escapes–based on so-called flux studies that measure air concentrations, less than 7 percent. Any that does reach the air is immediately attacked by ultraviolet in sunlight and moisture and breaks down into methyl alcohol and iodide ions. The methyl alcohol in turn degrades quickly to carbon dioxide, and the iodide joins the iodide already present in the atmosphere–millions of tons of which are produced each year by algae in the ocean, burning of biomass, conversion by bacteria, rotting of plant matter, etc. (BTW: Iodide is given to pregnant mothers as a supplement to prevent birth defects and spontaneous abortions, and every human being requires it to maintain a healthy metabolism.) Within a week, all of the methyl iodide is gone under, over, and near the treatment site–in most cases, in a couple of days. Yet DPR requires the tarp to stay in place for two full weeks as a further precaution to avoid exposure to bystanders. Only then is it perforated, and 24 hours later removed.

    Second, DPR did not ignore the Scientific Review Panel in any regard to its chartered duties–in fact, they substantially reviewed the recommendations and made many changes to the product label and its mitigations to limit the potential for exposure. See: http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/dept/director/pdf/mei.pdf. Then read the SRC’s own transmittal memorandum at http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/risk/mei/peer_review_report.pdf in which they describe the science underlying DPR’s risk assessment as “scientifically rigorous” and going well beyond in each and every instance that performed by the U.S. EPA in rendering its registration decision.

    In fact, all of the substantive history and documentation you seek is on the California DPR website at http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/ The risk assessment, the mitigations, the deliberations and reports, the responses to public comments (including those robowritten by activist opponent websites), and the fundamental science studies themselves. So start there, and learn why your concerns are overwrought and sensationalized.

    1. Thanks for the supporting links, @RD – as I said, I’m happy to post anything credible in response. I can only say that we materially disagree over the reasonable interpretation of the DPR vis. the SRP’s findings, as well as the risk of drift, but I appreciate that you posted links so that people can make up their own minds; I’ve done so, and I think it’s a snow job, and I’m hardly alone – including people who actually went to the hearings and listened to Warmerburg’s dismissive approach, but that’s whole the point of doing one’s own thinking. You may also wish to note that I’ve explicitly taken the ‘green’ movement to task for their role in the ill conceived phaseout of methyl bromide.
      Finally, while I greatly respect your willingness to post under your real name, I can’t help but notice that someone by the same name has made something of a cottage industry of posting on boards where the MeI issue has been raised; and that someone by the same name has worked as a consultant on what sounds a lot like lobbying for large scale agri business in the past. To be clear, I do not claim to know what your professional history or current interest is, and you have every right to post here regardless, but in the interests of everyone’s ability to interpret the available information fairly, would you care to whether or not you have any vested interests in this issue?

  6. @Cara – Again? Still, with nothing better to do than kvetch? Really?! Look, I’m well aware that methyl iodide is a fumigant, which to my thinking is more basic English than basic science, but whatever.
    Inasmuch as you’ve got a serious comment, I’ll give you a serious reply. In no particular order, as I’ve already said more than once today, (a) I’ve yet to see any data whatsoever on the concentrations in fruit (the data I do site is well documented), but I’d be happy to post anything credible; (b) I don’t see that that data has any bearing on all the other risk factors, including, say, toxic ‘drift’ into air and groundwater, or worker and community safety, resulting from its commercial application; (c) the central failing of the the DPR was its capricious decision to over-rule its own scientists and approve, in exposure terms, amounts in excess of 100x. And I AM sticking to recipes: My KIDS eat strawberries, and my FRIENDS live near strawberry fields.

  7. Stick to recipes. Your lack understanding of basic science is pathetic.
    IT IS A GAS! Do you have any links to show that this compound shows up in measurable residue amounts on the fruit?

  8. @RD – I can’t practically respond to every unsubstantiated claim you make, but I’ll try to hit the highlights: As to the 90% figure, that is the proportion of all domestic berries grown in CA, and I agree that, practically, there is no way all of it would be treated. So, point taken – and??? As to the provenance of plants, I’ll let the farmers who grow organically with care respond to that, but I find the argument entirely uncompelling – it’s a bit like saying as long as you’ve survived eating a little poison, you might as well keep eating more. As to your numerous claims about what has and hasn’t been proven, well, by all means, feel free to provide the links to the supporting evidence and post them right here. Finally, and most importantly, you are in the dubious company of the Warmerburg, Arysta, and every other person I’ve heard make this argument in favor of MeI, when you patently ignore the fundamental, logical incoherence of the whole debate: Why did the head of the DPR override her own review panel, the very same panel you reference, and why did the DPR approve exposure levels in excess of 100x what their own scientists suggested was safe? I’d also be interested in understanding how you square the circle around the risk of drift, but I see that you’ve ignored that entirely, as well.

  9. QUOTE: ”Granted, I’m a nervous Jew and prone to over-reaction “

    This has to be one of the most overtly bigoted, racist things I’ve ever read in print on a mainstream news site/blog. Too late Scott. The cat’s out of the bag and you have completely exposed yourself. There’s no way to retract where you stand on the issue of equality.

    For the rest of you out there, what Mr. Kerson is CLEARLY saying here is that ethnic groups (or “races”), have wired-in predispositions to certain undesirable behaviors. You all should be wondering what other undesirable behaviors he inexorably associates with being Hispanic, Asian, African, Arab, European, Persian, Indian, etc. What behaviors are you inescapably “prone” to due to your ethnic background?

    And don’t even try to twist yourself into an ethical pretzel to squirm out of this one Mr. Kerson. The self deprecation defense is invalid. We all know what you really think. You’ve told us yourself.

    This frighteningly angry, pro-genocidal, extremist, racist material needs to be pulled from the PD website immediately. I urge everyone reading this to contact the Executive Editor Catherine Barnett
    catherine.barnett@pressdemocrat.com and request that this kind of overtly racist, bigoted material be removed from the PD’s website as soon as possible. An injury to one is an injury to all.

    1. @Equality… Where do I even start? “one of the most overtly bigoted, racist things I’ve ever read”… “frighteningly angry, pro-genocidal, extremist, racist material”… Dude, I think you need to get out more!

      Now, I could dutifully expose, line by line, your sensationalist, provocative prattle for what it is, but to do so would be to invest far more credibility in your pithy platitudes than they have any right to. Still and all, I’m a softy at heart, so no matter how infantile and impaired your opinions may be, I feel compelled to offer you the same respect and compassion I’ve shown to the other village idiots who’ve occasionally come beggaring some small crumb of public attention with rage in place of reason and ignorance in place of intellect: I’m really, truly sorry your mama didn’t breast feed you long enough, but I don’t see how that should be my problem!

  10. Every strawberry you eat–organically grown or traditionally farmed started as a plant reared at a nursery in soil that was fumigated. The distinction takes place after they are purchased and planted at the farm. All are safe with respect to fumigants–because in many years of testing to levels at parts per trillion–no trace of fumigant has ever been found in the fruit of either organic or traditionally farmed strawberries by the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration–who are constantly looking and sampling all food for contamination. So–as Joe said–your headline is false and misleading. It’s also impossible because of restrictions on use that 90% of all strawberries would be grown in soil fumigated with methyl iodide–the safety buffer restrictions are too great (up to a half mile in many cases). The fact is, methyl iodide was registered for use in California on a number of crops after DPR’s Scientific Review Committee passed judgment on the quality of the studies examined to determine hazard, which the Science panel described as “scientifically rigorous.” And that 54 scientist letter–when EPA repeatedly asked them for scientific evidence of their claims and even extended the public comment period to give them more time, they never produced a shred of new evidence to back up their protest. And finally, all of these false and mistaken points taken directly out of the Pesticide Action Network’s press release have been repeatedly evaluated by qualified toxicologists and found erroneous, misleading, and distorted.

  11. eat organic. unorganic strawberries were already listed as one of the most toxic fruits you can eat, now its worse? Organic is not just for hippies anymore folks. Maybe we don’t want to feed our families poison.

  12. I guess I would rather eat bugs and worms in my berries (eat organic) then have a cancer causing carcinogen in my berries, plus you get the extra protein.

  13. I signed the petition; I agree with Sue….Joe M is not convincing me at all…..Nothing to worry about? “Very dangerous to those applying, transporting the chemical and those living near the fields….” So I can eat the strawberries but I should not live near the strawberry farms? No, I do not agree!

    Seems to have much Toxicity and biological effects, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methyl_iodide

    I think I will start my own garden before there is little to consume via the neighborhood grocery store.

    Thanks for your post Scott…again, fully enjoyed, not angry, rather greatly informative!

  14. @Joe – I’m well aware, and tried to make clear, your first point (fumigant, applied to soil, not directly to fruit). Regarding 3, I’ve not seen anything convincing either way about whether, or how much, ends up in the fruit itself – but if you have a link to a credible study or article, please provide it, I will be happy to post it. And I agree entirely with your concluding point, from what I’ve read it is broad based environmental ‘drift’ that is probably a far greater concern than the berries themselves, certainly to the extent that you live or work near the fields.
    But my biggest bitch is with the disingenuous nature of the DPR process itself.

  15. The headline “Get Your Neurotoxin off my Strawberry” is misleading.
    1-Methyl Iodide is a gas. It is applied to the soil as a fumigant before the strawberries are planted.
    2-It has volatilized and is no longer present when the strawberries are planted.
    3-None of it ends up on the strawberries.

    That said, it needs to be banned because of its toxicity to folks living near the strawberry farms and the possible exposure to those applying the chemical.
    Yes it is safer on the Ozone layer than the product it is replacing, but very, very dangerous to those applying, transporting the chemical and those living near the fields.

    On a consumer level Methyl Iodide is nothing to worry about. On a consumer level you should be worried about all the other chemical residues found on strawberries.

    Strawberries are already on the list known as “the dirty dozen” (along with nectarines, celery, domestic blueberries, imported grapes, peaches, potatoes, and others) that have high amounts of detectable pesticides. Best to only consume these which are organically grown.

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