Toxics law spurs grassroots; CA challenged on methyl iodide; Florida farmworkers suffer from pesticides

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Support Panups!June 18, 2010

Congress hears from grassroots on toxics law

U.s. CongressA national call-in week has spurred thousands of concerned citizens to contact their legislators about the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010. The draft legislation was introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) in mid-April, with a companion discussion draft tabled in the House by Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Bobby Rush (D-IL). The new bill would overhaul the Toxics Substances Control Act, a 30-year-old law which many critics claim has failed to protect public health from industrial chemicals. The law “could finally turn our ‘innocent until proven guilty’ approach to regulating toxic chemicals on its head,” writes Pesticide Action Network’s Senior Policy Analyst Kristin Schafer in a blog for PAN is urging supporters to join in the national call-in effort, and to ask Congress to strengthen the bill’s language on persistent, bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs). PBTs are long-lasting chemicals that can last for decades in the environment, build up in the food chain, and can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy and breastfeeding. 

PBTs that travel the globe on wind and water currents have been targeted for worldwide elimination under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs Treaty). According to Schafer, strong language on PBTs in the Safe Chemicals Act would be an important step toward U.S. participation in the treaty, which has already been ratified by 170 other countries. “If we get our PBT house in order,” says Schafer, “we can protect public health at home and play a constructive role on the international stage as well.” The national pesticide law would also need revision for the U.S. to join as a full partner in the international POPs Treaty.

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Scientists & Californians stir up Sacramento on methyl iodide

MEIOn Thursday June 17, representatives of tens of thousands of Californians who oppose the new pesticide methyl iodide presented Governor Schwarzenegger with letters and petitions calling on him to block state approval of the chemical. “Over 27,000 CREDO Action members alone have submitted public comments in opposition to methyl iodide,” said Adam Klaus, Campaign Manager for CREDO. “This toxic chemical has no place poisoning our food system or our farmworkers. The Department of Pesticide Regulation has a duty to stand up for Californians, not the big chemical and agribusiness companies.” Methyl iodide has been linked to long-term illnesses including cancer, miscarriages and brain damage, and is being considered for use on California strawberries and other crops. The pesticide is manufactured and promoted by Tokyo-based Arysta LifeScience, the largest private pesticide company in the world.

The submission of petitions to the governor was followed by a legislative hearing convened by the California Senate Food and Agriculture Committee. Members of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s (DPR) own Scientific Review Committee on methyl iodide, a panel of internationally respected scientists, were brought in to testify at the hearing. Their findings on health were essentially ignored in DPR’s April 30, 2010 proposal to approve methyl iodide for use in California agriculture. Professor John Froines, who chaired the committee, told the hearing: “It’s simply not the case that one should move ahead on a chemical that’s so toxic that there’s evidence of its causing death and disease,” reports the Ventura County Star. “This is, without question, one of the most toxic chemicals on earth.”

For her part, DPR director Mary-Ann Warmerdam defended the proposal, saying that the state believes that farmworkers and neighbors can take safety precuations, including wearing tightly-fitted respirators at all times and vacating the area. State lawmakers countered that restrictions aren’t always followed out in the fields. According to CBS News, Warmerdam responded: “It is difficult for us to regulate … either stupidity, ignorance or violations of law.” Karin Cushaway, who lives in Sisquoc, CA, at the edge of fields where methyl iodide would likely be used, responded: “It’s easy for our Governor and other state officials to agree to allow methyl iodide to be used because they don’t have it being applied in their back yards.” Kelli Grant, a neighbor, added: “Our back yard, where my children play, is never still. The wind is always blowing off the fields and it is terrifying that methyl iodide could soon be blowing into my back yard and my children will breathe it.” DPR is expected to make a final decision after its public comment period closes on June 29th.

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Florida ignores farmworkers suffering from old poisons

lake ApopkaPersistent pollutants have found an unfortunate laboratory in the waters of Lake Apopka, Florida. Their destructive and lingering effects on humans and nature are chronicled in Barry Estabrook’s recent article in The Atlantic, “A Life Engulfed by Pesticides.” The article explores the tragedy of how Lake Apopka, once famous for its trophy largemouth bass, was reduced to little more than a dirty, discolored and dangerous patch of swamp a few miles north of Orlando. The culprit? A “veritable witch’s brew of endocrine-disrupting organochlorine (PDF) pesticides” that contaminated the waters of Lake Apopka, starting in the 1940s when its waters were used to irrigate surrounding fields and then allowed to flow back into the lake. With each irrigation cycle, the water carried back a more potent mixture of poisons, thus endangering farmworkers, devastating marine life, and killing wildlife that fed on what few fish survived.

“By 1996, the situation had become so dire that the Florida government bought out the landowners and closed down the farms,” reports Estabrook. “The 14 landowners were paid $103 million for property and equipment. (In one of the sweetest deals, a farm sold the government a vegetable cooler for $1.4 million and then turned around and bought it back at auction for $35,000.) The 2,500 workers, who often had families that lived with them on the land, got nothing other than orders to clear out.”

In 1998, after the abandoned fields were flooded to provide a winter refuge for migrating waterfowl, Lake Apopka became the site of “one of the worst bird-death disasters in United States history”. The region remains toxic, surrounded by warning signs reading: “These lands were former agricultural land that were subject to regular use of agricultural chemicals, some of which, such as DDT, are persistent in the environment and may present a risk to human health.” Yet the people who bore the brunt of that risk have been ignored by the Florida government. According to a survey (PDF) conducted by PAN partner Farmworker Association of Florida, 92% of these workers now suffer from multiple health complications including diabetes, lupus, high blood pressure, emphysema, arthritis, recurring rashes, miscarriages, birth defects, and childhood developmental difficulties – disorders that have been linked to the organochlorine pesticides that were in use on the farms. According to the article, farmworkers have not received compensation or medical aid in the 15 years since the farms were shut down. “We’ve been begging and begging for medical attention,” says Linda Lee, one of the women who used to work on the farms around Lake Apopka, “But no one listens.”

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