Methyl bromide (Courtesy of USDA)
Farmers have wanted a replacement for a pesticide that's being phased out because it destroys the planet's ozone layer. Now, EPA has approved a substitute but some leading scientists say that pesticide is highly toxic and too dangerous to use in fields. Jeff Young reports from Washington.
CURWOOD: A new controversy over an old pesticide is brewing with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at the center of the storm. At issue is a replacement for methyl bromide, a powerful pesticide that's being phased out because it destroys the planet's upper atmospheric layer of protective ozone. But some leading scientists say the new pesticide could pose a serious risk to public health. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our story.
YOUNG: Farmers who grow strawberries, tomatoes and a dozen of other crops use some 20,000 tons of methyl bromide a year. Pumped into the ground it kills insects and plant pests without leaving residue on the crops. However, when methyl bromide reaches the atmosphere it has the unfortunate habit of eating the ozone layer. So, it’s being phased out. Teresa Thorne, at Alliance for Food and Farming, an agriculture trade group, says that takes a valuable tool from farmers.
THORNE: Well it’s a big concern. Without a viable alternative, the concern is that we’re going to have very definite loss in crop yields.
YOUNG: Thorne says growers are cautiously optimistic about EPA approval this month of a possible replacement, Methyl iodide. Last year EPA decided not to approve methyl iodide because of uncertainty about the chemical’s health risks. But after further review EPA reversed that decision. Jim Gulliford leads EPA’s pesticide program.
GULLIFORD: Yes, methyl iodide is a highly toxic pesticide. So as we look then at the toxicity issues related to it, we look at the health effects, the potential for health effects—the pesticide has value from a pesticidal standpoint, it has risks. We mitigate those risks by establishing buffers, reentry times, and all of that is specifically designated for this pesticide.
YOUNG: Gulliford says methyl iodide will only be used by trained personnel. No one is allowed to enter the area where it’s applied for days. And it’s not to be used within a quarter mile of sensitive sites like schools or hospitals. But EPA’s decision drew sharp criticism in a letter from leading scientists. Dr. Ted Schettler helped write that letter. He’s a physician with the non-profit Science and Environmental Health Network. Schettler says the old pesticide, methyl bromide, injured people through accidental releases even with strict safeguards on its use. He fears accidents with methyl iodide could be worse.
SCHETTLER: Using this highly hazardous chemical in farming communities where people are living nearby is almost certain to result in unintentional exposures either to workers or to people in the community at some point.
YOUNG: Schettler says methyl iodide harms lung tissue and probably causes cancer, but that’s not his big concern. The chemical also injures the nervous system and he says developing brains of children and fetuses could be especially vulnerable. Fifty-three scientists, including six Nobel laureates, joined Schettler in the letter, calling EPA’s approval of such a hazardous chemical ‘astonishing.’ They say they are—quote—‘perplexed EPA would even consider methyl iodide for agricultural use.’ EPA’s Gulliford says he took those points into consideration.
GULLIFORD: We took a look at the letter very carefully and then I had a follow-up briefing with my people, which they indicated that they were satisfied that the issues raised by this group had been adequately addressed in the review that we had done in respect with the pesticide.
SCHETTLER: My response to that is it’s nonsense.
YOUNG: Again, Ted Schettler.
SCHETTLER: And I’m concerned that the EPA has not used the authority that they have to require a look at the impact of this chemical on the developing brains of children before they’ve approved it.
YOUNG: EPA’s Gulliford refused to address specific questions about the health concerns the scientists raised. He instead insisted that I turn off my recorder.
GULLIFORD: I’m going to end this right now. You’re asking questions that—
YOUNG: Well, okay. Let’s skip that question and move on.
GULLIFORD: No, let’s turn it off and talk about this.
YOUNG: Gulliford abruptly ended the interview when questions turned to EPA’s recent hire of an executive from the company that will make and sell methyl iodide: Arysta LifeScience. Shortly after the agency turned down the chemical last year, EPA hired Elin Miller as a regional leader. Miller had been CEO of Arysta’s North American operations. A year after her hire, EPA reversed its decision and approved methyl iodide. Miller declined to be interviewed. Arysta also decided not to comment. An Arysta press release says the company will begin sales of methyl iodide soon, in a blend of chemicals named Midas. The company must still win approval in California and Florida, the biggest U.S. markets, where growers say they need a new soil fumigant. Ted Schettler wonders if swapping one toxic chemical for another is wise.
SCHETTLER: There’s another conversation here, which gets to the wisdom of approaching this kind of agriculture by beginning the entire process through sterilizing the soil.
YOUNG: That, he says, is a conversation for another day. For now, the focus is on the EPA’s decision. And that’s something the agency will have to explain to the chair of the Senate’s Environment Committee, Barbara Boxer. She’s asked for a full briefing on why EPA said yes to methyl iodide. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
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