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Controversial strawberry pesticide pulled from US

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FRESNO, Calif. — A pesticide used primarily in the strawberry industry is being pulled from the U.S. market by its Japanese manufacturer, a surprising move that comes after harsh criticism from environmentalists and farmworkers who claim the chemical is toxic and may cause cancer.

Tokyo-based Arysta LifeScience Inc. said late Tuesday that it was immediately suspending the sales, marketing and production of all formulations of the fumigant Midas, or methyl iodide, in the U.S.

The company said the decision was based on the product's economic viability in the United States.

Since it was approved in 2007 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, methyl iodide has seen little use across the nation. California's $2 billion strawberry industry, which produces more than 90 percent of the nation's strawberries, has shunned its use, in part because it carried severe restrictions on use near schools and residential areas.

Methyl iodide had been widely seen as a replacement for another fumigant, methyl bromide, which is being phased out under international treaty because it depletes the Earth's ozone. Some growers are currently using up their supplies of methyl bromide, while others have switched to fumigants such as chloropicrin and metam sodium as alternatives.

Methyl iodide, which is injected into soil, kills bugs, weeds and plant diseases. It was also used by some growers of tomatoes, peppers and other crops.

California regulators approved its use in December 2010 despite opposition from a wide range of scientists, environmental and farmworker groups.

Those scientists concluded that use of the fumigant would result in acute public health risks because tests on rats and rabbits have shown that exposure to the chemical causes thyroid cancer, miscarriages and damage to the nervous system. Scientists also found it can pollute air and water.

Environmentalists and public health advocates have been pressuring Gov. Jerry Brown's administration to reconsider state approval of the fumigant. An Alameda County Superior Court judge was expected to rule soon on a lawsuit by environmentalists who asked the state to vacate that approval.

Arysta officials said methyl iodide was applied "without a single safety incident" on 17,000 acres across the southeast — a tiny fraction of U.S. farmland — since it was first registered five years ago.

Only five applications — all under five acres — took place in California since the state registered the pesticide. That included a single strawberry farmer using the chemical on a small test site.

Arysta officials said the company will continue to maintain the federal Midas label registered with the EPA. The company will also assess whether to maintain registration with 47 other states.

Environmentalists who clamored to get the chemical off the market hailed the unexpected decision to end sales and said it came just in time for spring strawberry season.

"This is a pleasant surprise and a huge victory, especially for rural residents and farmworkers across the country," said Paul Towers of Pesticide Action Network. "Arysta saw the writing on the wall and chose to pull their cancer-causing methyl iodide product."

It's unclear how the company's decision will affect the pending lawsuit. California Department of Pesticide Regulation spokeswoman Lea Brooks said Arysta has not requested voluntary cancellation of the fumigant's registration.

The strawberry industry was also surprised by the decision, said Carolyn O'Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission. Growers are concerned, O'Donnell said, about the implications of methyl iodide being pulled from shelves while methyl bromide is being phased out.

Part of the reason growers might have been reluctant to use methyl iodide, O'Donnell said, is because the regulations were so strict.

"People like to live where strawberries like to grow," O'Donnell said. "A lot of times, because of that, the rules excluded a lot of the acres from being fumigated."

In recent years, the commission has poured more than $12 million into university research to look at alternatives to fumigation, such as crop rotation, eliminating soil pathogens by using natural sources of carbon and sterilizing soil with steam.

And earlier this month, the commission and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation announced a research partnership looking for alternatives to fumigants. The $500,000, three-year project is will focus on growing strawberries in peat, tree bark or other non-soil substances that are disease-free.