Our Pesticide Evaluation System Is Terrible

There are large groups of people that want you dead. There are satellites high above our heads and meteors drifting near our planet that could crush you at any moment. There are microscopic orgasms that want nothing more than to chow down on your vital organs. It's a scary world out there, folks. The trick to getting through any day is putting those highly unlikely possibilities out of your mind and just living your life. And that means trusting and hoping that people are hard at work, looking out for you, keeping the monsters away.

National security is scanning closed circuit cameras (and a whole lot more) to know what the terrorists are up to. NASA scientists have their eyes on the skies watching for space debris. The Center for Disease Control is tracking various contagions to make sure they stay far away. We have a wide variety of organizations built to protect us from threats enormous and small. But what happens when they fail at their job?

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That's the troubling question coming from a new study regarding how California's pesticide use is regulated.

The study, issued by UCLA's Sustainable Technology and Policy Program, analyzed the risk assessment process of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. To do so, they focused on how the DPR approached the question of whether or not methyl iodide should be used. The pesticide was brought into the conversation after another widely-used pesticide, methyl bromide, was found to negatively affect the ozone, and regulators forced it to be phased out. Chemical manufacturers were looking for a replacement, and they settled on methyl iodide. In 2010, the DPR completed their studies and gave it the big thumbs up.

The question, then, wasn't whether or not the DPR made the right decision in the case of methyl iodide, but whether or not the DPR's process was worthwhile when making such a decision. And the answer is a resounding "No."

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.

"The risk management process was broken, essentially," Dr. John Froines, an author of the report, told me. "The state didn't look at the implications of having two fumigants being used at once. They didn't do a good job looking at the cumulative issues, the potential for interaction. They underestimated the seasonal and work-day link. [Workers] were sent respirators that were completely inadequate."

In other words: No, methyl iodide shouldn't have been approved by the DPR. But more disturbingly, the process in examining the pesticide failed on a whole lot of levels, many of them pretty basic.

"Our committee found that methyl iodide was neurotoxic and found it was a carcinogen," said Froines. "But, there was no study of neurodevelopmental toxicology done. If you just use common sense and say this stuff is neurotoxic and developmentally toxic, it means you have to do a study on neurodevelopmental toxicity. And they didn't do it."

(It should also be noted, for clarification purposes: Methyl iodide is no longer something for consumers to worry about in California. While it's still registered to use in certain countries overseas, the manufacturer withdrew the chemical's registration in the U.S. in 2011 while in the midst of a lawsuit from an activist group. Which is why the question about the process, rather than methyl iodide use specifically, is the important one here.)

As far as who was to blame for the failure, Froines does not focus on the folks in the laboratories. "The toxicologists did a really quite extraordinary job themselves with the risk assessment," he said. "It's when they got to the management level when the failures occurred." Information wasn't shared, the correct tests weren't performed, and, most importantly to Froines, the DPR didn't look at alternative agricultural solutions. "We just seem to go from one super-toxic fumigant to the next," said Froines. "And it's just not the way to do business. There needs to be a way of looking at alternative agricultural practices."

Until that starts happening, the problem of what to do if one pesticide doesn't work will always be answered with another pesticide. And then the question is, how much do we trust the people making decisions about how safe those new pesticides are?

Sleep tight, everyone!

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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