Teachers at Ohlone Elementary School were greatly relieved when Arysta LifeScience, a Japanese chemical company, announced on March 20 that it would no longer sell methyl iodide in the United States for use as a pesticide.

The school sits on the edge of Watsonville. Long rows of strawberries, artichokes and brussel sprouts end 30 feet from the playground. Those fields get sprayed with pesticides and everyone at the school gets a dose.

When methyl bromide was banned in 1990, Arysta sold methyl iodide as a substitute soil fumigant for strawberries. Both OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control list methyl iodide as a carcinogen.

Nevertheless, the EPA approved it in 2007. In December 2010, during the final days of the Schwarzenegger administration, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation approved it as an “emergency regulation.” Just three months later the department’s chief regulator went to work for chemical giant Clorox Corp.

Despite a lawsuit filed on January 5, 2011, challenging the approval, methyl iodide application began in Fresno County in May 2011.

“We know that methyl iodide causes birth defects,” says Jenn Laskin, grievance officer for the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers, Local 1936. “But we also suspect it is having far-reaching effects on students, and on teachers.” Laskin and a group of Local 1936 members are part of a broad coalition that has fought methyl iodide and methyl bromide use for years.

Teachers worry about the increasing effects of chemical exposure on students. Jenny Dowd has worked at Ohlone Elementary for 18 years. “I’ve seen a rise in asthma and behavioral problems over that time,” the second grade teacher says. “We have more kids with autism. There’s more hyperactivity among students, attention span problems and chronic respiratory infections.” Dowd adds, “If I could, I’d monitor every field next to every school.”

Watsonville is a major growing region so there are many children of farm workers. Gonzalo Herrera, who teaches kindergarten at Ohlone, explains, “Their moms and dads come home with pesticides in the dust on their clothes. When their kids hug them, they get exposed.”

Local 1936 joined other unions and the Pesticide Action Network, first to get the methyl bromide ban enforced, and then to stop methyl iodide from replacing it. Through 2011 they testified at hearings and won the support of state legislators who called for its ban. Over 200,000 people supported prohibition in the EPA’s public comment period, and 30,000 signed petitions. The United Farm Workers marched to Sacramento calling for labor law reform in the fields, including restricting the use of pesticides such as methyl iodide.

“The partnership between our union and migrant students brought the first resolution to the school board in Pajaro Valley, where it passed unanimously before methyl iodide had been approved,” Laskin says. “Our students took it on to the city council.”

Santa Cruz County passed the first resolution calling for the ban. Then the Monterey County Central Labor Council brought it to their Board of Supervisors, traditionally a bastion of growers’ power. After an attempt to pull it off the board’s agenda was greeted by public uproar and a protest at an Arysta reception, Monterey was forced to pass a resolution.

The public outcry, together with the discovery of corporate influence over staff scientists at DPR, had an effect on the court case. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch said the approval had been “cobbled together” and that “no evidence” justified it. The company’s lawyer then said, “Arysta, even if it wanted to, could not sell this product in the state of California any longer.”

—  By David Bacon, CFT Reporter

CFT calls for CalSTRS to divest in manufacturer

Delegates to CFT Convention in 2011 passed a resolution asking the state to do more independent research about the health and environmental impacts of methyl iodide use and to “withdraw approval of methyl iodide for use in agricultural production until this research is completed….”

The resolution also called on CalSTRS to “immediately divest from Permira until the private equity group sheds its investment in Arysta LifeScience, or directs that firm to stop manufacturing methyl iodide for agricultural use.” According to CalSTRS, its Divestment Policy requires staff to investigate the issue, the investment, the risks involved, and to engage directly with management.

In an email to CFT, CalSTRS said, “We were not able to ‘sell’ or ‘divest’ of the Japanese chemical company that made the product or the product itself since we did not own a direct interest in the firm. Our exposure to the company was in the form of a Partnership, which owns over 10 different companies and by its investment structure is very illiquid.” Nonetheless, “the company decided to discontinue selling [methyl iodide] in the United States for a number of reasons.”

—  Jane Hundertmark, Editor

>To learn more about the Partnership, go to calstrs.org and read the Quarterly Private Equity report.