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Sep 05

Methyl Iodide: A Nasty Pesticide Explained

By Tom Philpott

Nasty stuff: methyl iodide applied to a California farm field. Brad Hanson

Pesticides usually do their bug killing away from public view. But one such poison, a fumigant called methyl iodide, has been making headlines.

Activists have been staging elaborate protests outside the San Francisco offices of its maker, Arysta Lifescience, Grist reports. And newly released documents reveal, shall we say, irregularities in the process of its recent approval by the state of California, writes Mother Jones‘ own Jen Quraishi.

What gives? Labor Day is a good time to ponder that question, because methyl iodide poses a clear menace to farmworkers, especially those who tend California’s vast strawberry fields.

According to Pesticide Action Network, exposure to the stuff “causes late term miscarriages, contaminates groundwater and is so reliably carcinogenic that it’s used to create cancer cells in laboratories.” Since it is applied to soil before plants even go into the ground, it poses little risk to consumers of strawberries. But for the farmworkers who apply it and the people who live near treated fields, it’s a different story, because of its “tendency to drift off site through the air,” the group warns.

When the state of California convened an independent scientific advisory panel to assess its risks, the finding (PDF) was blunt: Methyl iodide is a “highly toxic chemical” and its use in farm fields “would result in exposures to a large number of the public and thus would have a significant adverse impact on the public health.” Preventing exposure to it would be “difficult, if not impossible,” the panel concluded.

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