Scientists insist that the toxicity of methyl iodide is so powerful it can change DNA structure. That wasn’t enough to stop the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) from registering the controversial soil fumigant for use Dec. 20.

But Ventura County is being cautious.

Since the controversial decision by the DPR, a number of environmental groups have filed a suit in hopes of blocking the use of the pesticide on California farms. Until these suits are resolved, the county agricultural office will not be taking any chances.

“We’re not issuing any permits until we have direction,” said Susan Johnson, the county’s deputy agriculture commissioner.

Because the DPR registered methyl iodide as a restricted material, it requires a use permit from the county agricultural commissioner, who enforces state pesticide laws and can impose tougher restrictions tailored to local conditions.

The county’s decision not to issue permits is an independent decision, safeguarding it from any possible litigation that could arise. The DPR, however, confirmed that methyl iodide permits can still be issued and is by no means illegal.
“There are no court orders or stays as far as I know that [have] stopped anything. It is registered for use in California,” said Lea Brooks, assistant director of communications for the DPR.

Used primarily to ensure strawberry production by killing soil-living pests, weeds and fungi, methyl iodide, if permitted, would be unlikely to appear until this summer during seasonal crop rotation. The strawberry market is competitive, and strawberries are the top cash crop of Ventura County with nearly $400 million in gross sales in 2009.

In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registered the fumigant as a replacement for methyl bromide, which is being phased out because of its lingering effect in the atmosphere and its destruction of the ozone layer. Local farmers say that there is enough bromide for the upcoming summer season, but it has become cost-prohibitive because production of it is limited.

After methyl iodide was registered with the EPA, the DPR underwent an extensive three-year review of methyl iodide, said Brooks. Following the review, the public comment period was 60 days, twice what is legally required, and the DPR received approximately 50,000 comments by the June 29 deadline.

“Methyl iodide is the most evaluated pesticide in the Department of Pesticide Regulation’s history,” explained Brooks. “DPR’s evaluation determined methyl iodide can be used safely under its toughest-in-the-nation health-protective measures, including stricter buffer zones, more groundwater protections, reduced application rates and stronger protections for workers.”

Not good enough, according to plaintiffs in the suit against the DPR, who are urging Gov. Jerry Brown to reverse DPR’s decision. Kathryn Gilje, executive director of Pesticide Action Network North America, previously stated, “The chemical is just too dangerous to use in California.”

The lawsuit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court by Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance, claims that methyl iodide is a poison that causes cancer and thyroid disease and can harm the lungs, liver, kidneys, brain and central nervous system.

“Speaking from the point of view as an organic chemist, I would not want to be out in the fields using this stuff. And I handle chemicals every day,” said Dr. John Tannaci, associate professor, Cal Lutheran University.

Tannaci explained that methyl iodide does less damage to the atmosphere than methyl bromide, but the toxicity of methyl iodide is highly dangerous and will produce strong acids if it reacts with water on the skin.

But methyl iodide would not be used by just any farmer.

“Methyl iodide will not be used by untrained farm workers. Doing so would be a violation of state law and the department’s comprehensive use restrictions,” Brooks said.

Fourty-seven states have licensed the use of methyl iodide, a chemical created by the Tokyo-based Arysta LifeScience Corp., the largest private pesticide company in the world.

Local farmers agree that when used properly, methyl iodide does the job of killing pathogens more effectively than anything else on the market. How and when it will be used locally, however, remains unclear since the county agricultural office is not yet issuing permits.

“The million-dollar question is ‘under what conditions will we be able to use it?’ ” said Andy Hooper, second vice president, Farm Bureau of Ventura County. “The permit conditions remain unclear.”