Watsonville teachers, students challenge methyl iodide

Teachers at Watsonville’s Ohlone Elementary School were more than relieved when Arysta LifeScience, a giant Japanese chemical company, announced on March 20 that it would no longer sell methyl iodide in the U.S. for use as a pesticide. The school, on the edge of Watsonville, is separated from agricultural fields by no more than a 30-foot-wide road. Over the last decade, growers have planted strawberries, artichokes and brussel sprouts in the long rows that snake over the hillside, ending a stone’s throw from the playground where children kick their ball or hang from the jungle gym every day.

When those fields get sprayed with pesticides, or when chemicals are plowed into the soil to kill the nematodes and root fungus that infest strawberry plants, everyone at the school gets a dose. It can come from the spray directly, or from the dust that blows out of the fields into the adjacent neighborhood.  Either way, this “pesticide drift” means that whatever is used to kill pests also gets ingested by children and adults when it wafts through the air into their lungs, or when it coats their clothing or food for lunch.

“We know that methyl iodide causes birth defects,” says Jenn Laskin, grievance office for the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers. “But we also suspect that it is one of a host of pesticides that are having far-reaching effects on students, and on ourselves as teachers.” That realization motivated Laskin and a group of PVFT members to become part of a broad coalition that has fought methyl iodide and methyl bromide use for several years. When Arysta (“the world’s largest privately held crop protection and life science company”) announced it was pulling methyl iodide from the market, the coalition called it a victory.

Arysta’s announcement stated that “the decision was … based on its economic viability in the U.S. marketplace,” and that it would “continue to support the use of iodomethane outside of the U.S. where it remains economically viable.”  What made methyl iodide economically unviable in the U.S. was an almost-certain ruling by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch that the chemical’s original approval violated both science and law.  Behind that legal suit was not only an accumulation of scientific evidence, but also a political firestorm organized by its opponents, PVFT among them.

Methyl iodide is used primarily by strawberry growers to kill root infestations. It was a replacement for methyl bromide, whose use was banned in 1990 by the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances. Methyl bromide attacks the ozone layer in the atmosphere. Despite the ban, however, in 1999 over 70,000 tons of methyl bromide were still being used worldwide as a soil fumigant, mostly in the U.S.

Arysta then proposed methyl iodide as a substitute. In opposition, 54 leading scientists wrote to the EPA: “We are skeptical of U.S. EPA’s conclusion that the high levels of exposure to methyl iodide that are likely to result from broadcast applications are ‘acceptable’ risks … none of U.S. EPA’s calculations account for the extra vulnerability of the unborn fetus and children to toxic insults.”  Methyl iodide is listed as a carcinogen by other federal agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation itself had called the chemical “highly toxic” and found that  “any anticipated scenario for the agricultural or structural fumigation use of this agent would result in exposures to a large number of the public and thus would have a significant adverse impact on the public health”, and that limiting exposure from pesticide drift would be “difficult, if not impossible.” Nevertheless, EPA approved it in 2007. Then the California DPR approved it as an “emergency regulation” in December 2010, in the final days of the Schwarzenegger administration.   Three months later the department’s chief regulator, Mary-Ann Warmerdam, went to work for chemical giant Clorox Corp.  A lawsuit was filed on January 5, 2011, challenging the approval, but meanwhile methyl iodide application began in Fresno County in May 2011.

Beyond the scientific and legal arguments, however, are growing concerns by teachers about what many see as the rising effects of chemical exposure on students. Jenny Dowd teaches second grade at Ohlone, and has worked at the school for 18 years. “I’ve seen a rise in asthma and behavioral problems over that time, especially in the last few years,” she says. “We have more kids with autism. There’s more hyperactivity among students, attention span problems and chronic respiratory infections. I really wonder if these could be due, at least in part, to pesticide exposure.”

The concern of teachers and parents convinced local authorities to install a station for monitoring chemical exposure next to the schoolyard. Its big white box, ironically, sits next to the raised gardens where Dowd teaches her second-graders their first lessons in gardening, biology and the environment. They already know something about agriculture – in Watsonville, one of the state’s most important growing areas, a large percentage are the children of farm workers. 

“That means they’re also exposed to chemicals through their parents,” explains Gonzalo Herrera, who teaches kindergarten at Ohlone. “Their moms and dads come home with pesticides in the dust on their clothes. When their kids hug them, they get exposed. Often the parents don’t know the effects of what they’re working with, so we need to educate the whole family.”

Although the most recent fight has been over methyl iodide, concern about pesticide use goes back many years. “When I first worked here,” remembers Dowd, “my room was right next to the field.  When I got moved after three years, I noticed that my breathing and health improved.  These are obvious things you can see easily, but what worries me also is what kind of cancer we might see down the road.”

Because of those concerns, Laskin joined other teachers, young people in the local Brown Beret chapter, other local unions and the Pesticide Action Network, first to get the methyl bromide ban enforced, and then to stop methyl iodide from replacing it. Through 2011 they testified at hearings and won the support of state legislators like Assembly Speaker John Perez, who called for its ban.  Over 200,000 people supported prohibition in the EPA’s public comment period, and 30,000 signed petitions. In August the United Farm Workers marched to Sacramento calling for labor law reform in the fields, including restricting the use of pesticides like methyl iodide.

“Our partnership between migrant students and the union brought the first resolution to the school board in Pajaro Valley, where it passed unanimously,” Laskin says, “before methyl iodide had even been given its approval. Our students took it to the City Council. We called on STRS to divest our pension fund from Arysta, which even prompted the company’s lobbyist to call us. We sent flyers through the schools to let teachers know what we were doing.  Finally the district called the union, after our professional issues committee had proposed the monitoring station at Ohlone.” 

First Santa Cruz County passed a resolution calling for the ban. Then the Monterey County Central Labor Council brought it to their Board of Supervisors, traditionally a bastion of growers’ political power.  After an attempt to pull it off the board’s agenda was greeted by public uproar and a rally at an Arysta reception at the local Marriott Hotel, even Monterey was forced to pass a resolution.

The outcry, and the discovery of corporate influence over the staff scientists at DPR who worried about the chemical, had its effect on the court case. Warning Arysta and DPR regulators that a decision would likely go against them, Judge Roesch said the original approval had been “cobbled together” and that “no evidence” justified it. He found that DPR had broken state law by failing to look at alternatives or considering the Birth Defect Prevention Act. The company’s own lawyer then said, “Arysta, even if it wanted to, could not sell this product in the state of California any longer.”

That leaves the question, however, of what growers will use now to control strawberry pests. It’s not a light question in Watsonville, where thousands of workers pick in the fields every year. “Ag companies have a job to do,” Dowd says, “and they want the best product. So what will they use?  We sent Arysta packing, but now I’m worried they’ll bring back methyl bromide. What about organic farming? Why can’t we find a feasible alternative?”

Dowd wants the union to put more pressure on the district to advocate on pesticide issues. “We need to know what chemicals the industry is using, and what the side-effects are.  We used to do surveys when I first worked here, asking students and teachers how they felt after a field was sprayed. If I could, I’d monitor every f—–g field next to every school.” Pesticide exposure isn’t an issue separate from the other problems facing teachers, however. Lisa Woodhouse, who teaches fourth grade at Ohlone, says that after five years she’s still getting a pink slip every year. “Poison, pencils and pink slips – they all start with a P,” she laughs.

Laskin believes the union should be more proactive, and describes a change that took place during the fight against Arysta. “Students, teachers, farmers and pesticide activists called for alternatives, not just banning methyl bromide,” she explains  “Farmers use the tools industry gives them. So if we don’t want the return of methyl bromide, we have to look at that.” A statement by the Pesticide Action Network calls for “more resilient varieties and improved cultivars of strawberries, cultural practices (crop rotation, cover crops, natural fertilizer), biological control (using predatory species and bacteria instead of chemical pesticides), and physical methods (such as soil solarization and anaerobic disinfestation).” It quotes organic farmer Jim Cochran, who says: “It’s surprisingly easier to grow strawberries without chemicals than the industry would lead you to believe.”

In the meantime, though, Arysta is looking south to Mexico, where it intends to continue selling methyl iodide. It’s a move not short on irony. Mexico is not just the country where most strawberries are grown for U.S. supermarkets during winter months. It’s also the home from which the families of many Ohlone students make their journey north to Watsonville’s fields.

Photo: Formulax/Wikipedia


David Bacon
David Bacon

David Bacon is a California writer and documentary photographer. A former union organizer, today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights.