Misuse of Chemicals Blamed for Watermelon Poisonings
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ Store owners in two states started smashing California watermelons as an agriculture official said he believed the illness of more than 200 people was caused by deliberate misuse of pesticides, not residue from old applications.
The destruction of melons in California and Idaho on Monday was ordered by the California Food and Agriculture Department after a rash of illnesses in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and British Columbia.
″I’m not assuming it was a carryover (from earlier legal pesticide applications). I’m assuming it was an illegal application,″ state Food and Agriculture Director Clare Berryhill told a news conference Monday.
Berryhill’s agency ordered the destruction to make way for certified safe melons.
California’s Vons Grocery Co. stores began destroying their watermelons late Monday afternoon, said chain spokeswoman Suzanne Dyer. Other chains said they would first inventory their stocks before destroying them.
Safeway produce worker Demetre Baliotis in a Los Angeles store said the store’s melons are off the shelves and in the warehouse and ″we’re waiting for someone to tell us to throw them away or whatever.″
In Washington state, workers at grocery outlets slammed the juicy melons into trash bins and broke open others with sticks as state health officials ordered California melons destroyed.
Melons from other states were allowed back on grocery shelves, Bert Bartleson, supervisor of food programs for the Division of Health, said Monday.
Safe melons, bearing inch-square, green-and-white ″Pass California Agriculture″ inspection stickers, could be available in some stores as early as today, Berryhill said.
The longtime San Joaquin Valley grape and raisin farmer said he learned of the deliberate pesticide misuse from more than one person. But he declined to give details except that he intended to vigorously prosecute farmers who contaminated thousands of watermelons with the pesticide aldicarb.
″We believe there were violations of restricted materials laws, and we think there are some growers out there who violated that. And I’m here to tell you right now that I will not sleep until I find those growers,″ he said.
His deputy, Rex Magee, said violations of pesticide laws are misdemeanors with maximum criminal penalties of a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. Civil penalties could be $150 per plant, which could total ″in the millions of dollars,″ he said.
Berryhill added that other growers whose watermelon crops were ordered destroyed by health and agriculture officials could also sue the growers who caused the contamination scare by their illegal use of pesticides.
Aldicarb involved in the poisonings is sold by the Union Carbide Co. under the trade name of Temik. It is approved for use on cotton and other crops but is banned for watermelons.
Cotton is a major crop in Kern County, where most of the contaminated melons were grown, and is frequently found on adjoining fields or is alternated on the same field with watermelons in different years.
Berryhill said chemists are still looking at the possibility that the watermelon contamination was caused by residue from previous legal applications of aldicarb, but said that was extremely unlikely.
″I’m not going to blame Union Carbide at this juncture,″ he said.
The agriculture director said a farmer might be tempted to use aldicarb on watermelons because it is much stronger than authorized pesticides, thus cheaper and more effective.
But, Berryhill said, aldicarb is banned for watermelons because it is absorbed into the fruit, where it remains toxic for several months.
Dr. Kenneth Kizer, director of the state Department of Health Services, said 149 cases of aldicarb poisoning have been diagnosed in California, with another 200 possible cases under investigation.
At least 41 additional cases of aldicarb poisoning from California melons have been reported in the other four states and British Columbia.
There have been no fatalities, although Kizer said the pesticide could be life-threatening to some individuals. Victims complain of nausea, diarrhea, tremors and sweating, but most have recovered within two days.
As a result of the melon contamination, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to reopen the question of dietary exposure to aldicarb. It is made from methyl isocyanate, which killed more than 2,000 people in India last December.
George Gomes, a deputy director of food and agriculture, said officials were unable to assign a dollar estimate to the crop loss statewide, but Berryhill revised downward from 10 million to 1 million the number of watermelons that will have to be destroyed.