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Pesticide Prompts Scuffle Over Safety in California

California's $1.6 billion strawberry industry would probably be the main user of the substitute for methyl bromide, which is being phased out under an international treaty because it depletes the earth's protective ozone layer. - Photo Courtesy of Day Trippen

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LOS ANGELES - The winds that blow across the strawberry fields outside Linda Uvari's home during the spring harvest season carry the tart, sugary smell of the swelling fruits.

Uvari fears that they may soon also carry a cancer-causing pesticide. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation has proposed replacing a popular fumigant with methyl iodide despite concerns by its own scientific advisory panel that it could poison the air and water.

That's turned the strawberry fields around Uvari's Ventura County home and along the Central Coast into the latest battleground over the chemical that first stoked controversy three years ago when it received federal approval.

''It scares me. I just don't see why they have to use something that is so toxic,'' Uvari said. ''My feeling is that they put profit before people.''

The chemical has been applied to more than 15,000 acres of crops over the last two years, mostly in southeastern states, and has not been associated with illnesses, said Jeff Tweedy, head of business development for Tokyo-based pesticide giant Arysta LifeScience Corp., which makes the pesticide.

Opponents say it can take up to 10 years for long-term effects such as cancer to show up and in the nation's richest farm state there's concern among advocacy groups. They say they have seen enough pesticide drift incidents that have sickened workers and nearby residents.

Fumigants such as methyl iodide, which has caused miscarriages in laboratory rats and rabbits and is a known carcinogen, are among the most dangerous class of pesticide, since their gaseous state enables them to drift away from where they are applied, said Susan E. Kegley, a scientist with the Pesticide Action Network.

''You can't help but have people be in the way of that cloud of fumigant as it drifts off,'' she said.

After strawberries, California's major methyl bromide users are flower growers, who are concentrated in Ventura and San Diego counties.

Methyl iodide was championed as a safe replacement for methyl bromide when the EPA approved it for use in 2007 over the objections of environmentalists and health experts who questioned whether it could be applied safely.

- Courtesy of San Jose Mercury News


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February 26, 2020, 9:41 pm PDT

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