CURWOOD: A new controversy over an old pesticide is brewing with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at the center of the storm. At issue is a replacement for methyl bromide, a powerful pesticide that’s being phased out because it destroys the planet’s upper atmospheric layer of protective ozone. But some leading scientists say the new pesticide could pose a serious risk to public health. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our story.

YOUNG: Farmers who grow strawberries, tomatoes and a dozen of other crops use some 20,000 tons of methyl bromide a year. Pumped into the ground it kills insects and plant pests without leaving residue on the crops. However, when methyl bromide reaches the atmosphere it has the unfortunate habit of eating the ozone layer. So, it’s being phased out. Teresa Thorne, at Alliance for Food and Farming, an agriculture trade group, says that takes a valuable tool from farmers.

THORNE: Well it’s a big concern. Without a viable alternative, the concern is that we’re going to have very definite loss in crop yields.

YOUNG: Thorne says growers are cautiously optimistic about EPA approval this month of a possible replacement, Methyl iodide. Last year EPA decided not to approve methyl iodide because of uncertainty about the chemical’s health risks. But after further review EPA reversed that decision. Jim Gulliford leads EPA’s pesticide program.

GULLIFORD: Yes, methyl iodide is a highly toxic pesticide. So as we look then at the toxicity issues related to it, we look at the health effects, the potential for health effects-the pesticide has value from a pesticidal standpoint, it has risks. We mitigate those risks by establishing buffers, reentry times, and all of that is specifically designated for this pesticide.

YOUNG: Gulliford says methyl iodide will only be used by trained personnel. No one is allowed to enter the area where it’s applied for days. And it’s not to be used within a quarter mile of sensitive sites like schools or hospitals. But EPA’s decision drew sharp criticism in a letter from leading scientists. Dr. Ted Schettler helped write that letter. He’s a physician with the non-profit Science and Environmental Health Network. Schettler says the old pesticide, methyl bromide, injured people through accidental releases even with strict safeguards on its use. He fears accidents with methyl iodide could be worse.

SCHETTLER: Using this highly hazardous chemical in farming communities where people are living nearby is almost certain to result in unintentional exposures either to workers or to people in the community at some point.

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