PITAHAYA, Costa Rica - Even without the chilling warning - "Fatal if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin" - the skull and crossbones are unmistakable to anyone planning to use Counter, a powerful pesticide manufactured by American Cyanamid Co.
Counter is so toxic, the label advises, that it should be handled only by someone wearing overalls, safety glasses, a mask, rubber boots and gloves.
But nobody was following those rules on June 1, 1988, at a plantation near this tiny village that is lost in a green sea of sugar cane.
For several days, workers - some of them shirtless - applied Counter in the fields. Most wore sneakers without socks. Some threw the pesticide onto the fields with their bare hands.
No one warned them of the dangers or furnished protective garb, a research team from Costa Rica's National University later found. The plantation foreman was so mindless of the dangers that he and his son used a sack of Counter as a pillow.
That afternoon, 15-year-old Heriberto Obando and other workers complained of headaches and dizziness. Some vomited blood. By the time Heriberto reached the hospital, he was foaming at the mouth. Doctors saved the others, but not him.
People in the United States worry about microscopic traces of illegal pesticides on imported fruits and vegetables that may or may not cause cancer 30 years from now.
In places like Pitahaya, legal pesticides - many of them imported from the United States - are making people sick, injuring them, even killing them.
And the dangers to these workers - who raise one-fourth of the produce eaten in the United States - is growing, a trend ironically fueled by efforts to make the U.S. safer from hazardous chemicals.
Because of consumers' concern about pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables and because of threatened congressional legislation to ban export of pesticides that leave potentially toxic residues, chemical companies are replacing such pesticides with chemicals that don't leave residues. But the new chemicals are more toxic and can bring immediate harm to the people who apply them.
"The food goes clean. The problems simply remain here," says Marcie Mersky, who works in Guatemala for the Greenpeace environmental group.
The global death toll from pesticides is estimated by the World Health Organization to be 220,000 a year. Sickness and injury from pesticides - which can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and, experts believe, chronic neurological damage - are even more common: 25 million incidents a year among agricultural workers, WHO estimates.
According to a recent British study, more than 99 percent of all deaths from acute pesticide poisoning occur in Third World countries, even though developed countries, such as the United States, use 80 percent of all agricultural chemicals.
Heriberto Obando's death illustrates the consequences of chemical companies' sales of legal but acutely toxic products in Third World countries where workers lack training, protective gear and technological sophistication to handle dangerous pesticides.
Pesticides that have been banned or withdrawn from the U.S. market are exported overseas - 3.9 million pounds in one three-month period last year, according to a study of U.S. Customs Service records by the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education.
In the same three-month period last year, chemical companies exported 32 million pounds of organophosphates and carbamates, two types of a new, legal breed of pesticides - known as "non-persistents" because they disappear rapidly, some within hours of application.
The trade-off is that these legal pesticides, such as Counter, are generally much more acutely toxic and can bring immediate harm to farm workers and their families. Counter, for instance, is an organophosphate, a class of chemicals first developed as nerve gas before World War II.
In addition to Counter, other chemicals identified as dangerous to Third World farm workers by health experts and environmental groups include:
-- Methamidophos. Exported by Chevron Chemical Co., San Ramon, Calif. "It is one of the most frequent sources of acute pesticide poisoning that I've seen in Central America," said Douglas Murray, an American researcher who has been investigating pesticide poisonings in the region for the past decade.
"If you don't follow the label directions and if you neglect safety rules, a person can run into trouble," said Chevron toxicologist John Ford.
-- Aldicarb. Exported by Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co., a Research Triangle Park, N.C., subsidiary of a French multinational. Used on Central American banana plantations, it is classified as "extremely hazardous" by the World Health Organization. Researchers at the National University in Costa Rica, the world's second largest banana exporter, said Aldicarb is responsible for numerous worker poisonings. A Rhone-Poulenc spokesman said the firm is aware only of a "few isolated instances" - most caused by misuse - in the 70 countries where it sells the product.
-- Paraquat. Exported by ICI Americas, a Delaware-based subsidiary of Imperial Chemical Industries, a British multinational. The weed-killer sparked protests in the United States in the 1980s when the U.S. government sprayed it on marijuana plants in the United States and Mexico. Like Counter, it can be purchased only by trained workers in the United States. But in the Third World, where paraquat frequently is used to commit suicide, ICI's Gramoxone brand is available over the counter.
"It's the king of pesticides," said a salesman at a farm store in Guacimo, Costa Rica. But, he says, "I see people mishandling it all the time."
"Take it off the market. It's killing people all over the world," says Dr. Edwin Solano, a Costa Rican physician who said he has treated hundreds of farm workers, children and others poisoned by paraquat. "I have to think of my patients, not of the plants."
"We have a product that's useful, beneficial and which can be managed properly. So why should we take it off?" responded George Allen, an ICI official.
But at least one major pesticide manufacturer disagrees. Dr. H. Michael Utidjian, medical director of American Cyanamid in Wayne, N.J., said his firm has made "a policy decision not to market or incorporate paraquat in any herbicides because . . . it's so peculiarly dangerous if swallowed. I'm disturbed, as someone of British origin, that ICI is still very much in it."
The stony reply from ICI Americas official Edgar Ready III: "He has misinformation."
The controversy spotlights a larger debate that pits chemical companies and their supporters against environmentalists and health officials worldwide. The companies believe pesticides are the best hope against starvation and poverty; their critics say pesticides' impact on people and the environment is uncertain at best, destructive at worst. While the industry supports voluntary efforts to educate workers and increase government controls, their foes want outright bans.
The Bush administration sides with the industry. "There's no doubt that there are problems associated with pesticide use in other countries, fairly serious problems," said William Jordan, the Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide policy chief. "I don't think the answer lies in cutting off the source of supply here. The answer lies in companies, growers, governments and international organizations educating people about the risk so they don't do the kinds of things that result in children dying."
Throughout the Third World, researchers have documented widespread misuse of pesticides. Workers toil under airplanes spraying chemicals. Families sleep in the same room as their backpack sprayers and wash chemical-contaminated clothing and equipment in basins used for dishes.
Companies contribute to a climate of misuse, a 1987 survey by pesticide-safety activists in Asia found.
On a calendar promoting Du Pont pesticides in Indonesia, "the May-June poster girl is shown spraying a pesticide on tobacco without gloves, face mask or any protective clothing," said Michael Hansen, a Consumers Union researcher involved in the study.
Chemical-industry spokesmen say they go to great lengths to educate Third World farmers and to guard against misuse so the chemicals can be handled safely.
To prevent poisonings with paraquat in countries with high illiteracy rates, ICI distributes safety instructions in cartoon format and has added warning elements to the product itself: a bright green color, a noxious smell and a nausea-provoking additive.
Well aware that Counter is toxic, American Cyanamid began a pioneering effort in Ecuador, where the product is used to kill worms that can fell a banana plant. Even small-scale farmers must use the firm's distributor, which provides sprayers with protective clothing and medical tests to monitor levels of the pesticide in their blood. But that same effort has not been expanded to Central America.
Said Robert Harrison, who manages American Cyanamid's pesticide business in Latin America: "I sleep at night very comfortably. I think we've done as a company everything we can to avoid this problem from happening, but there's no way to control them totally."
But there is, suggests Murray, the pesticide-safety researcher: Change the mindset of industry and government officials who believe "development is a desperate need in the Third World and it doesn't come without sacrifice."
Echoes of that philosophy emerged in an interview with EPA's Jordan, who said: "I do not suggest that progress is without problems. It is something, though, that has two sides to it. It seems to me that you cannot simply ignore progress."