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Methyl iodide, a powerful but controversial fumigant, has been applied for the first time in California — on a one-acre chile pepper farm near Sanger.

The fumigant’s use Tuesday took environmentalists by surprise: They have been waging a battle against the fumigant and have been trying to track where and when it would be used.

Environmentalists say the chemical is a significant threat to public health. They say methyl iodide is listed by the state as a carcinogen and can cause thyroid cancer, respiratory tract lesions and neurological effects, based on tests of laboratory animals.

But farmers say the fumigant is an important tool in fighting pests and plant diseases. They have been searching for a replacement for methyl bromide, which was phased out by the federal government in 2005 because it damages the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer.

California approved the use of methyl iodide in December and created restrictions that include buffer zones, special training and tarps to contain the chemical.