Approximately 30 million pounds of fumigant pesticides are used each year on soil that yields valuable California crops -- strawberries, tomatoes, peppers and the like -- in an attempt to control pests. Responsibility for the safety of pesticides must be evaluated and approved by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation in a process known as registration.
A new report issued by UCLA's Sustainable Technology and Policy Program, a joint program of the Fielding School of Public Health and the School of Law, shows that in at least one case, the system failed by approving a chemical called methyl iodide for use on strawberries.
Methyl iodide is a neurotoxicant and is carcinogenic. It is known to cause lasting neurological damage, including psychiatric symptoms and chronic movement disorders resembling Parkinson's disease. It is also a developmental toxicant that has been shown to impair fetal development and cause fetal death at low doses.
Combined with a second fumigant, chloropicrin, methyl iodide was introduced as a substitute for methyl bromide, a widely used pesticide slated for phase-out by 2015 due to its ozone-depleting properties. While the methyl iodide-chloropicrin mixture was a promising alternative in terms of performance, it raised substantial human health issues. The Department of Pesticide Regulation approved its use in December 2010, despite opposition from scientists, environmental organizations and farmworker groups.
The UCLA report, "Risk and Decision: Evaluating Pesticide Approval in California," identifies a variety of deficits in the agency's registration process and makes recommendations to improve pesticide regulation in California.
Using the approval of methyl iodide as a case study, the authors examined the risk-governance approach used during the approval process, comparing it to best practices in regulatory settings, including risk-assessment practices developed by the National Research Council. They drew upon letters, hearing transcripts, reports, internal Department of Pesticide Regulation memos and other documents and analyzed the scientific, social and legal dimensions of pesticide registration in California.
In addition to highlighting the deficits in the agency's process, the report makes a number of recommendations aimed at better protecting public health, including:
"Good science, carefully used, is central to good decision-making," said Froines. "In this case, despite the laudable efforts of the Department of Pesticide Regulation staff scientists, a variety of factors stood in the way of that. Data gaps, narrow framing of the scientific issues and unrealistic assumptions regarding exposures stand out. These are issues that must be addressed to ensure appropriate pesticide regulation in California."
"Pesticide regulation in California is flawed," said UCLA School of Law professor Timothy Malloy, a faculty director of the Sustainable Technology and Policy Program and one of the report's authors. "Until we find safer alternatives to chemical pesticides, it is extremely important that the evaluation of new pesticides is thorough. If consumers, workers and the environment are to be protected from the adverse effects of pesticides, the approval process needs to be based on comprehensive data, objective evaluation and meaningful participation of all relevant parties."
In March 2012, the manufacturer voluntarily pulled methyl iodide products from the market, citing issues of economic viability. The withdrawal preempted an impending ruling by an Alameda County Superior Court judge that regulators broke state law in approving the use of methyl iodide.
To read a full copy of the report, please visit http://www.stpp.ucla.edu/node/474.
For video comments from Froines and Malloy, please see https://vimeo.com/74982284.
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