In a statement, the EPA gave that Methyl iodide, also known as iodomethane, will be allowed to control soil pests "under highly restrictive provisions governing its use." "When used according to EPA's strict procedures, iodomethane is not only an effective pesticide, but also meets the health and safety standards for registering pesticides," the agency was further quoted.
Methyl iodide was developed by Tokyo-based Arysta LifeScience Corp. as an alternative to the widely used fumigant methyl bromide. This has been banned under an international treaty because it depletes the ozone layer.
Like methyl bromide, the new product, to be sold under the name MIDAS, eliminates weeds and soil pests, and is meant to be used before planting. The EPA claims its decision is based on four years of risk assessment studies, constituting "one of the most thorough analyses ever completed by the agency for a pesticide registration action."
"The agency concluded that there are adequate safety margins and the registration of iodomethane does not pose unreasonable risks," the statement released further read.
However, last week, a group of 54 scientists, including six Nobel Prize winners, sent a letter to the EPA urging that the pesticide not be registered for use because of the potential danger to pregnant women and children, the elderly and farm workers.
California's Department of Pesticide Regulation lists the chemical as a carcinogen and has also expressed objections. Officials have said that regardless of EPA's action, use of the new product in California would not be possible before the state concludes its own review in a year or so.
The approval has brought immediate reaction from critics. It "will put farm workers, farmers and rural families at risk," Erik Nicholson of the United Farm workers of America said in a statement with the Pesticide Action Network of North America. He said the EPA instead should "focus on alternatives that don't view us as disposable human beings who can risk cancer and miscarriages in the name of supposed economic gain."
Robert Bergman, a University of California chemistry professor who was the lead author on the scientists' letter, called the EPA's decision outrageous.
"I think it's pretty clear these guys never had any intention of taking our concerns seriously," he said. "They have intended to approve this stuff from day one and we were just a bump in the road."
In a letter to Bergman, EPA Assistant Administrator Jim Gulliford said the EPA's scientific analysis had taken into account their concerns and the agency concluded that its risk assessments "are realistic and demonstrate adequate protection for the most sensitive individuals."
Gulliford added that the one-year registration would allow for re-evaluation of methyl iodide after new safety measures are put in place for other agricultural fumigants currently under review by the agency.
EPA scientists spoke this week by telephone with Bergman and two other signers of the letter, who reinstated concerns about the lack of specific tests evaluating danger to the developing brains of fetuses and infants.
The EPA is imposing conditions for use of the product, such as use of government-approved respirators for workers applying the fumigant, buffer zones around the fields to protect bystanders and five-day restriction on anyone entering the fields after the chemical is applied.
Friday's action came after the government postponed a decision last year and again held off last week after receiving the scientists' letter.
Farmers who raise crops such as strawberries, tomatoes and peppers have been struggling to find alternative products that work as well as the banned methyl bromide.
Critics stress that use of methyl iodide is complicated by its combination with chloropicrin, another soil fumigant that had sickened around 125 farm workers who breathed it last week near Reno, Nevada.