Shirley J. Smith worried about her family's bouts with ill health. There were the near-constant nosebleeds suffered by her 10-year-old son. She and her 18-year-old daughter were both diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. And both Shirley, 40, and her husband, Randall, 43, had to have polyps removed from their colons last year. But it wasn't until the North Fort Myers (Fla.) nursery owner started talking with other Florida growers who had experienced similar health problems that she began to identify a suspect: a fungicide called Benlate.

Now, the Florida Health & Rehabilitative Services Dept. has similar concerns. A recently completed survey of 70 people who blame their health problems on Benlate was enough to convince the Florida agency that further study is warranted. So in September, the state asked federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, and the Centers for Disease Control, for help in conducting an in-depth study of Benlate. The CDC declines to comment, but the EPA and NIOSH have agreed to participate. "We know we can't dismiss the health claims out of hand," says James J. Jones, an EPA pesticide program adviser.

All this means a continuing headache for Du Pont Co., Benlate's maker. Du Pont firmly denies that Benlate causes any health problems. Just the same, Benlate has given Du Pont and its insurers a bad time. The company already has paid $ 470 million to growers who claim their crops of ornamental plants and fruit were damaged by Benlate DF, a form of the fungicide taken off the market in March, 1991. Some 1,875 such claims have been filed, 1,200 in Florida. Du Pont has settled more than 90% of the Florida claims.

`THE RIGHT THING.' Du Pont officials maintain that there is no evidence that Benlate caused the plant problems. Indeed, neither scientists within Du Pont nor independent researchers have been able to duplicate the effects in labs.

So why pay almost a half-billion dollars in claims? Initially, Du Pont thought the problems were caused by small amounts of atrazine, a herbicide that had contaminated batches of Benlate in 1989 and again in 1991. The company eventually determined that atrazine was not the cause. It figured claims wouldn't top $ 20 million. "We thought we were doing the right thing," says Du Pont spokeswoman Pat Getter. "There was no proof that Benlate caused it, but no proof that it didn't."

Now it looks as if Du Pont's Benlate woes are far from over. It still faces some 90 lawsuits related to the crop problems. Among them are some filed by nursery owners in hurricane-damaged south Dade County. Du Pont says it could discount Benlate-related payments to some growers, since the storm -- not Benlate -- is now to blame for lost business. That has angered nursery owners Carolyn and Dale Smith of Homestead, who sued Du Pont on Sept. 14. "Du Pont has used this as an excuse to exploit nurserymen who have claims with them," says Dale Smith. Du Pont denies it is exploiting the disaster.

BAD EGGS. First introduced in 1970, Benlate remains a hot property for Du Pont, which sells about $ 100 million worth of the stuff annually to farmers in 40 states. Concerns about the fungicide surfaced as long ago as 1977, when studies showed that it caused sterility and birth defects in laboratory animals. In 1982, Du Pont researchers found that Benlate caused tumors in male mouse livers. And last July, John B. Mailhes, a geneticist at Louisiana State University Medical Center, published a paper showing that female mice given the stuff produced genetically abnormal eggs. Officials at Du Pont say that `exaggerated' doses were used in the research and insist that, used properly, Benlate is safe.

Aside from the health questions, Du Pont faces claims by growers who contend that Benlate continues to cause problems in nurseries and fields years after its last application. Du Pont denies that such a "recropping" effect exists. The company has studied more than 100 recropping cases and each time found the cause was not Benlate, says J. Robert Gibson, a Du Pont toxicologist.

Some scientists say the problem can't be ruled out. Indeed, Charles Conover, director of the University of Florida's Central Florida Research & Education Center, says researchers are studying problems with ornamental plants that are rooted in soil previously treated with Benlate. Says Conover: "We see some problems that we can't explain." Du Pont, meanwhile, can't even explain Benlate's original problems. But it's paying a pretty penny for them.

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