Rejecting the advice of a committee of scientists, state Food and Agriculture Department Director Henry J. Voss said Monday that he will continue to permit the use of the controversial pesticide aldicarb, despite concerns that the chemical poses a threat to the state's underground water supplies.
In contrast to the scientific panel, Voss said that "no pollution or threat of pollution exists" with the legal application of aldicarb, which was responsible for a widespread outbreak of pesticide poisoning after it was applied illegally on a portion of the state's watermelon crop in 1985.
Voss' decision was immediately attacked by representatives of environmental groups, who contended that the agriculture director ignored the evidence of danger to public health from the chemical.
One of those groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it is considering legal action to try to overturn Voss' decision.
"We do not agree with the finding that aldicarb is not polluting ground water," said Jennifer Curtis, a research associate with the environmental group. "There is extensive evidence in this state and in seven other states that it is."
However, Voss said testing of 49 wells in areas of the state where aldicarb was used most heavily turned up no evidence that the chemical was contaminating underground water supplies. And discontinuing its application in California would have a severe economic impact on farmers growing cotton and sugar beets, Voss said.
Voss discounted tests conducted in the Central Valley by aldicarb's manufacturer, Rhone-Poulenc. The studies showed that the pesticide moves easily through soil to ground water 50 feet below and persists for at least two to three years.
Those tests were central to the scientific committee's findings last month that the chemical is a threat to water supplies and that no change in the way it is used could assure public safety.
Voss also refused to consider findings that the use of aldicarb on commercially grown flower bulbs had led to contamination of wells in two Northern California counties where local agricultural commissioners had banned its use.
The recommendation was made by a committee of scientists from the Department of Health Services, the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Food and Agriculture. The committee reviews any pesticide found in state ground water. The scientist from the agriculture department dissented from his two colleagues and recommended that aldicarb not be banned.
Despite his findings, Voss did propose new restrictions on the use of the pesticide.
"To be extra prudent, we will promulgate a regulation to reduce by 50% the maximum amount of aldicarb allowed per acre on all crops," Voss said.
Under his proposal, the pesticide could not be applied in the fall, when runoff from rainfall would increase the possibility of the chemical reaching underground water.
The new limits on use are "contradictory," Curtis said. "Basically, he is saying that aldicarb hasn't polluted water, but for those who say it does, we'll modify its use."
David Bunn of the California Public Interest Research Group also criticized Voss, who was president of the California Farm Bureau Federation before being appointed director of the Department of Food and Agriculture in April by Gov. George Deukmejian.
"It shows again that we need to have the Department of Health Services regulating the health aspects of pesticides and not the Department of Food and Agriculture," Bunn said. The job of the agriculture department, he said, "is to try to keep pesticides on the market."
Aldicarb, sold under the trade name Temik, is widely used on farm products in California, primarily on cotton, sugar beets and potatoes. The chemical is blamed for what has been described as the largest outbreak of food-borne illness in North America. In 1985, about 1,000 cases of aldicarb poisoning were reported among those who ate California-grown watermelons contaminated with the chemical. Symptoms included nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and, in some cases, seizures and irregular heartbeat. Some pregnant women reported stillbirths following a brief illness.