The California health official who threatened to issue a health advisory unless bananas treated with an acutely toxic pesticide were removed from the market said Thursday that the use of the chemical constituted "an accident waiting to happen."
Dr. Richard Jackson, chief of the state's Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment Division, also described a series of conference calls between federal agencies and state health departments over the pesticide last week as "extremely confrontational."
Both the California Department of Health Services and Wisconsin's Health Department were prepared to issue health advisories on bananas last week after examinations ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed excessive levels of the pesticide aldicarb in some of the fruit from test fields in Central and South America. No bananas from the test fields were reported sold to consumers.
Jackson said California's position with the banana industry was, "You ship this (pesticide-treated) stuff out, we're going to go out with an alert." Aldicarb enters the root of the plant and is absorbed by the whole fruit, not just the skin.
The federally allowed level for aldicarb residues in bananas exceeded what is safe by at least 10 times, based on the experiences of California officials who dealt with an aldicarb poisoning outbreak in 1985, Jackson said.
Among the government agencies concerned about the consequences of a health advisory on bananas was the U.S. State Department, which warned the EPA that any expression of alarm could have major ramifications for Latin-American economies dependent on banana exports.
Jackson said he decided against issuing an advisory, which would have warned consumers to limit consumption of bananas, only after the industry pledged to monitor the fruit extensively and to destroy bananas containing traces of aldicarb.
In addition to the monitoring, the manufacturer of the pesticide has decided to stop selling it for use on bananas, the No. 1 consumer fruit in the country.
"It was entirely appropriate to keep treated bananas out of the market but it did not appear to be . . . extreme enough to occasion a food panic," Jackson said.
"We didn't have any information that people had gotten sick from (eating bananas) and felt that as long as they could get it out of the pipeline, a major alert was not needed."
In the 1985 poisonings, California health authorities reported that at least 1,000 people became ill eating watermelon that had been illegally treated with aldicarb. Two fetal deaths also were believed to have been associated with contaminated watermelon.
Jackson said California began considering a health alert on bananas after calculations by health officials indicated that a child eating two or three "highly treated" bananas could become "seriously ill." Aldicarb can cause symptoms ranging from nausea and diarrhea to convulsions. Very young children and the elderly are especially at risk.
During the watermelon poisonings, Jackson said, "a woman almost died who had gotten a dose that one could envision a child getting from eating two or three very seriously contaminated bananas." In that case, the woman was particularly vulnerable because of heart medication she was taking, he said.
Aldicarb is undergoing a special review by the EPA that could lead to more stringent regulations on its use. The California Department of Health Services favors banning the chemical's use on food.
During the conference calls with the EPA, other federal agencies and state health departments, the EPA tried to "pressure" California not to issue an advisory, according to a source familiar with the talks.
Linda Fisher, an EPA assistant administrator who spearheaded the discussions, said she pointed out reasons for not issuing a warning but insisted that she was not trying to apply pressure on California.
"I would say there were very confrontational discussions about the right way to manage this," Jackson said when asked about the talks.
The physician noted, however, that his superiors in state government and the California Department of Food and Agriculture fully supported him. He credited Rex Magee, the associate director of Food and Agriculture, with working with industry to obtain the extensive monitoring program.
Jackson is a pediatrician who heads the committee on environmental hazards of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He is respected by environmental groups but does not always share their positions. During the aerial spraying of malathion to combat the Mediterranean fruit fly in Southern California, for instance, Jackson maintained that the program posed no significant health risks.
He described the monitoring program for bananas as a "compromise" he believes will ensure the safety of consumers as much as possible. He noted that government agencies also will be checking bananas to ensure that no aldicarb-treated fruit gets on the market.
Henry Anderson, chief of environmental and chronic disease epidemiology at the Wisconsin Department of Health, said he also was satisfied with the outcome. Initially, he said, he planned to issue a warning that children under 6 be limited to half a banana at one sitting.
"As long as they (industry) now adhere to what they promised and we continue to monitor that, it's very unlikely you would end up with anybody getting a hot banana," Anderson said. " . . . I wouldn't be concerned now,"
State and federal officials say they had worried that their concerns about the pesticide might trigger a public panic similar to the 1989 uproar over over Alar, a chemical previously used on apples that environmentalists said could cause long-term health problems for children.
But interviews at grocery stores in and around Los Angeles on Thursday indicated that sales of bananas continued to be brisk.
Times staff writers Alan Abrahamson and Paul Jacobs contributed to this story.