The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) is recommending approval of a soil fumigant proven to be effective and licensed in 47 states, but scientists contend that its toxicity has the capability of affecting DNA structure.

Used primarily to ensure strawberry production by killing soil-living pests, weeds and fungi, methyl iodide may soon be on its way to Ventura County farms.

Methyl iodide would be the replacement for methyl bromide, which is being phased out because of its lingering effect in the atmosphere and its destruction of the ozone layer.

After evaluating the public comments received by the June 29 deadline, the DPR will decide whether to proceed with registration. The DPR received approximately 50,000 comments, primarily e-mails generated by social networking campaigns, according to Lea Brooks, assistant director of communications for the department.

If the department goes forward with its recommendation, said Brooks, it must first adopt regulations making methyl iodide a restricted material. Restricted materials require a use permit from the county agricultural commissioner, who enforces state pesticide laws and can impose tougher restrictions tailored to local conditions.

Henry Gonzales, Ventura County agricultural commissioner, was not available to comment on how Ventura County would impose restrictions on methyl iodide.

But Susan Johnson, the county’s deputy agriculture commissioner, said, “We enforce what comes down from the state. It’s difficult for any (farming) business to have different rules throughout the counties. We try to be consistent with other counties and states. But we certainly have the power to impose restrictions.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must approve California-specific labels with restrictions required by the DPR. After the EPA approves these labels, DPR technical experts will review them to ensure that all required health-protective measures are in place, said Brooks.

However, what these health-protective measures may be has experts scratching their heads.

“I often wonder if anybody making decisions like this ever took chemistry,” said Dr. Robin Bernhoft, a medical toxicologist in Ojai. “The likelihood it would be an improvement (from methyl bromide) is zilch in regards to people, environment and the ozone.”

Bernhoft said recent methyl iodide studies performed on rats and rabbits, which have the same enzyme systems and genetic controls as humans, produced thyroid tumors, cancer and changes in DNA structure.

Bernhoft’s findings weren’t any different from those of 54 renowned academic scientists and physicians, all of whom signed a letter and sent it to the EPA urging the agency to avert the chemical’s use back in 2007. Risk assessment scientists with the DPR agreed on 0.8 parts per billion as an acceptable exposure level of methyl iodide. But DPR risk managers instead settled on 96 parts per billion, a far more dangerous ratio according to the scientists involved with evaluating the substance.

At risk are the farming community and neighborhoods surrounding farms that would use the fumigant, and Ventura County isn’t pesticide-shy.

Ventura County farmers used more than 6.4 million pounds of pesticides in 2008, according to DPR statistics, and the county was eighth highest in the state for both the amount of pesticides used and the value of crops produced.

John Krist, Farm Bureau of Ventura County chief executive officer, feels Ventura County is relatively safe from the harm of methyl iodide.

“If it is registered, I would not expect it to be in common use in the county,” said Krist, who also anticipates that huge buffer zones would be enforced between farms and surrounding areas so that it would be difficult to apply to an entire field.

Since methyl bromide’s availability has dwindled, farmers have been using lower-impact alternatives, said Krist. But crops have been increasingly vulnerable to pathogens that fumigants like methyl bromide were able to defeat. To stay competitive in the farming business, Krist said, he thinks it important to have a powerful fumigant in the farmer’s arsenal.

“It’s important for growers to have access to big iodides, so they can occasionally knock out problems down to zero,” said Krist who has seen fungus, pathogens and weeds destroy 50 percent of some county farms. “You don’t want to apply year after year, but it’s a good tool to have.”

Local farmers agree that when used properly, methyl iodide does the job of killing pathogens more effectively than anything else on the market. The strawberry market is competitive, and strawberries are the top cash crop of Ventura County with nearly $400 million in gross sales in 2009. Farmers will look to chemical answers to get the edge on competition. But some believe that if consumers were made aware of how their strawberries were grown, farmers would have to reconsider their growing methods.

“It’s not something I would consider using or expose my workers to,” said John Fonteyn, owner and operator of Rio Gozo Farm in Ojai. “I would be cool with it if we started labeling how the produce was processed, listing every ingredient. But if there really is nothing wrong with using methyl iodide, label it. Do they think people would buy strawberries with a label that said ‘Raised by Methyl Iodide’? Let the consumer make the decision.”

As California goes, so does the agricultural industry. Though 47 states have already licensed the use of methyl iodide, very few have used it regularly. All eyes in the agricultural industry will be cast upon California’s implementation and regulation of methyl iodide.   

shane@vcreporter.com