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GREENSPACE

Debate over fumigant heats up Assembly labor panel

Also: Mercury is found in all fish tested in U.S. stream survey

August 21, 2009|Amy Littlefield; Bettina Boxall

Scientists and activists faced off with growers and the chemical industry at a California Assembly Labor Committee hearing about the fumigant methyl iodide, a known carcinogen under consideration for use on California fields.

Growers of strawberries, ornamental plants and other crops want the chemical approved as a replacement for methyl bromide, an ozone-depleting chemical banned under an international treaty. But worker advocates are concerned that the fumigant may increase the risk of miscarriage, cancer and thyroid toxicity.

Assemblyman William Monning (D-Monterey), chairman of the Labor Committee, said he convened the hearing to raise the issue "to a level of transparency and public scrutiny that is absolutely necessary and appropriate given the potential risks posed by this chemical." Monning had voiced concern that the Department of Pesticide Regulation was fast-tracking approval of methyl iodide.

"If it poses worker safety risk, then we have to decide, do we have our priorities right?" Monning said in a phone interview after the Wednesday hearing. "You can't go backwards with cancer, birth defects or unintended health impacts."

Methyl iodide has already been approved for use by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and every other state except Washington and New York. At Wednesday's hearing, agricultural industry representatives voiced impatience with California, where the review process is still underway.

The state Department of Pesticide Regulation, which is charged with determining whether the chemical can be used in the state, reaffirmed its commitment to an external review process and a public hearing on the chemical, scheduled for the end of September.

"California is unique," Monning said. "We have different growing conditions; we have different concentrations of rural residents living next to fields."

He added: "We have a process that we should be proud of. Part of this hearing today is to protect the integrity of that process."

-- Amy Littlefield

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Mercury found in all tested fish

Researchers found mercury in every fish tested in a nationwide stream survey, with some of the higher concentrations showing up in mining areas of the West.

In about a quarter of the fish, levels of the toxic metal exceeded federal standards for people who eat an average amount of fish.

"This study shows just how widespread mercury pollution has become in our air, watersheds and many of our fish in freshwater streams," U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a news release.

The study, conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, sampled 34 fish species at 291 stream sites across the country from 1998 to 2005.

The most contaminated sample came from smallmouth bass in the Carson River in Dayton, Nev., a historic gold mining area.

Overall, high mercury levels were detected in fish from streams in the Southeast, along the East Coast and in western areas -- including Northern California -- where gold or mercury has been mined.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States. For most of the sampled streams, atmospheric mercury is the primary source of the pollutant.

Wetlands and forests aid the conversion of mercury into its toxic form, methylmercury, which enters the aquatic food chain.

In the study, largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass had the greatest average mercury concentrations. Brown trout, rainbow-cutthroat trout and channel catfish had the lowest.

-- Bettina Boxall

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For more on the California environment, go to Greenspace, The Times environmental blog. Latimes.com/greenspace

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