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June 16, 2011

Rachel's Kids

Rachel Carson would be proud of the kids at Renaissance High School in Watsonville, California. Carson, of course, was the former U.S. Bureau of Fisheries biologist who, alarmed by the effects of DDT, wrote Silent Spring -- the Big Bang of the modern environmental movement.

Before Silent Spring appeared way back in 1962, no one questioned the indiscriminate use of pesticides. People assumed that better farming through chemistry was completely safe. Who would dare challenge the inexorable march of “scientific progress”?

Rachel Carson, that's who. As a scientist herself, she was able to build a devastating and convincing case against DDT. The chemical industry cried foul, but when President Kennedy asked the President's Science Advisory Committee to report on Carson's findings, they backed her up, DDT was eventually banned, and the rest is history.

Which brings us back to Watsonville. Almost half a century after Silent Spring, we now have an Environmental Protection Agency that is charged with protecting the health and safety of both consumers and agricultural workers by regulating pesticides and fumigants. But, in spite of greater awareness of the dangers, we still can't assume that the fruit and vegetables on our supermarket shelves are safe. And for the low-income workers who do the back-breaking work of harvesting our food, we actually can assume that many of them will be exposed to dangerous chemicals every working day.

One of those chemicals is methyl iodide. In "Refusing to Bend," a fine piece of reporting by Rosie J. Spinks for Sierra magazine, we learn that the EPA approved methyl iodide for agricultural use in 2007. The agency did so over the objections of more than 50 scientists (including four Nobel laureates), who considered it too toxic. We also learn that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation approved methyl iodide for use as a fumigant in December of last year. Again, the warnings of scientists were ignored. As Spinks writes:

Airborne transmission, groundwater accumulation, developmental effects, thyroid disruption, cancer -- these are some of the potential consequences that led an independent scientific review committee, commissioned by the DPR prior to its approval of methyl iodide, to conclude that "there is little doubt that the compound possesses significant toxicity" and would thus result in an "adverse impact on the public health."

Methyl iodide has been used in California but -- so far -- not in the Watsonville/Salinas area that produces half of California's annual strawberry crop. That is in part thanks to some remarkable activism by the students at Renaissance High -- the heroes of Spinks's article. These young people live at ground zero for this chemical. And they know that their parents will be on the front lines of exposure, so they organized support from farm workers and persuaded Watsonville's mayor and City Council to support a methyl iodide ban.  

Their advocacy is working, so far. Already, Governor Jerry Brown has conceded that California should take "a fresh look" at methyl iodide. The EPA also reopened public comment earlier this year in response to a petition filed by Earthjustice and other environmental groups calling for the suspension and cancellation of the chemical.

Will methyl iodide eventually find its way onto the strawberry fields of the Salinas Valley? It's up to all of us. Let's make Rachel Carson -- and the students at Renaissance High School -- proud.  Please join them and take action now by sending a message to California Governor Jerry Brown.

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