WWI Chemical Weapon Used to Grow Calif. Strawberries
$2.6B industry is bolstered by that and other dangerous fumigants: investigation
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 11, 2014 1:12 PM CST
Stock image   (Shutterstock)

(Newser) – A school surrounded by strawberry fields sounds charming—unless it's in the middle of a California farming community that still relies on potentially dangerous pesticides to keep its lucrative cash crop growing. An in-depth look by the Center for Investigative Reporting at this $2.6 billion industry and its reliance on fumigants makes some startling revelations:

  • California provides nine out of 10 of the strawberries consumed by Americans, but strawberries are notoriously difficult to grow. Fumigants—including methyl bromide, 1,3-Dichloropropene, and chloropicrin, a chemical weapon used in World War I—are pumped underground to prevent future plagues, and while the residue doesn't stay on the fruit itself, it wafts into the air and has been linked to cancer, developmental issues, and ozone layer depletion.

  • Dow AgroSciences (which manufactures 1,3-D) and state regulators supported a 2002 pesticide policy that let growers ignore restrictions against 1,3-D. The rationale: People can be exposed to more 1,3-D in any given year as long as it "evens out over time." A Harvard associate professor calls that nonsense, saying that's like driving sober one time, then driving with a BAC that's twice the legal limit and averaging out the two incidents to "say everything is fine."
  • All developed countries (including the US) that signed 1987's Montreal Protocol agreed that no methyl bromide would be used by 2005. However, California strawberry growers are tapping into a crucial exemption that allows them to keep using the pesticide if they can prove there's no acceptable alternative and it would hurt the industry financially.
  • Thanks to heavy lobbying and research by Dow to contest health risks, California's pesticide regulation department has, for the most part, continually upped townships' pesticide caps when asked to over the years, despite protests by toxicologists and other scientists. After CIR made a public records request in December, the department told farmers in February it wouldn't grant exceptions to the caps anymore, a decision Dow is now fighting.
(Click to read CIR's entire profile, including farmer perspectives and a look at the communities surrounded by California's strawberry country.)