If you like strawberries or live in a strawberry growing region, you may now have reason to worry.

On Dec. 1 of last year, the California State Department of Pesticide Regulation approved the use of methyl iodide, a pesticide officially classified as a carcinogen under Proposition 65. Methyl iodide, also known as MeI, is slated as a replacement for the ozone-depleting methyl bromide for use on our region's valuable strawberry crop, as well as a variety of other flowers, fruits and vegetables.

While admitting its toxicity, regulators claim that "tough restrictions" will ensure the pesticide is safely applied. These restrictions include a permitting process and the use of buffer zones and tarps for containment. However, findings by the Department of Pesticide Regulation's own Scientific Review Committee cast doubt on the effectiveness of these strategies. In a report regarding the health risks of methyl iodide use, the committee states:

"Based on the data available, we know that methyl iodide is a highly toxic chemical and we expect that any anticipated scenario for the agricultural or structural fumigation use of this agent would result in exposures to a large number of the public and thus would have a significant adverse impact on the public health. Due to the potent toxicity of the methyl iodide, its transport in and the ultimate fate in the environment, adequate control of human exposure would be difficult, if not impossible."

Furthermore, Dr. John Froines, chairman of the committee and professor at the School of Public Health at UCLA, called methyl iodide "without question one of the most toxic chemicals on earth." Indeed, the report cites as evidence the use of MeI as an agent to deliberately induce cancer in laboratory animal experiments.

Methyl iodide was first approved in 2007 by the Environmental Protection Agency for application nationwide. At that time, a group of scientists, including five Nobel laureates, came out in opposition to the EPA approval that resulted in the official listing of Mel as a pesticide. In a letter to the EPA, these scientists raised concerns about public health risks through contamination of airways, surface waters and underground water sources, especially to populations such as pregnant women, farmworkers, children, the elderly, even healthy adults living in agricultural areas.

"In addition to the potential for increased cancer incidence, U.S. EPA's own evaluation of the chemical also indicates that methyl iodide causes thyroid toxicity, permanent neurological damage, and fetal losses in experimental animals."

Concerned, a group of scientists, farmworkers and environmentalists are challenging California's ruling. On Dec. 30, Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of Pesticide Action Network North America, United Farm Workers, Californians for Pesticide Reform, Pesticide Watch Education Fund, Worksafe, Communities and Children Advocated Against Pesticide Poisioning, and farmworkers Jose Hidalgo Ramon and Zeferina Estrada. It is their hope that upon taking office Gov. Jerry Brown will reverse the state's decision made under the Schwarzenegger administration.

Admittedly, methyl iodide is not indispensible to a healthy strawberry crop. In a December Huffington Post article, John Kirst, CEO of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, is quoted as stating, "The industry [isn't] going to go under without it, but it's important to keep these tools available."

In fact, the Pesticide Action Network points to the success of Santa Cruz County's own Swanton Berry Farm -- an organic berry farm with a profitable business model-- as evidence that strawberries can be grown en masse without the use of fumigants www.swantonberryfarm.com.

Among possible replacements for chemical fumigants, farmers in Idaho have been experimenting with adding mustard seed to their crop rotation. As a result they have both kept pests at bay and saved money. For more information, read the following article online at www.panna.org/sites/default/files/SpreadTheWordMustard.pdf

Here's what you can do:

Interested in voicing your opposition to the use of methyl iodide? Sign the Pesticide Action Network's petition asking the EPA to rethink its position on methyl iodide at the following link: http://action.panna.org/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=2784

You can also contact governor Brown's office to voice your concerns by calling 916 445-2841 or by sending a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, c/o State Capitol, Suite 1173, Sacramento, CA 95814.

Jennifer Parrish writes a biweekly column for the Sentinel. Contact her at gogreensentinel@yahoo.com