California has put a chemical on trial.

Last week the state's Department of Industrial Relations began conducting a public inquiry into the research, production and marketing of a widely used pesticide, dibromochloropropane (DBCP), which is alleged to caused sterility, birth defects and cancer among chemical workers, farm laborers and consumers.

At least 95 male workers who have handled DBCP are known to be either sterile or have abnormally low sperm counts. One of the employees, and unidentified worker at Dow Chemical Co.'s , Magnolia, Ark., plant, has been diagnosed to have cancer of the testicles, which resulted in surgical castration.

In the meantime, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a statement warning that consumers who might eat DBCP-contaminated food could run the risk of developing cancer.

In the California hearings which began Wednesday, representatives of Dow, Shell and Occidental chemical companies - the biggest producers of DBCP - have come forward to offer often acrimonious testimony about the system that allowed the often unrestricted marketing of potentially dangerous chemicals.

"The hearings will show that despite 20 years of early warnings at the time of introduction, the marketing of this poison apparently outweighed any consideration of the protection or well-being of the workers involved," said Department of Industrial Relations Director Donald Vial in his opening statement.

By the weekend recess, hearing officers were less than satisfied with what they had learned, even accusing Dow of "deliberatly withholding information."

Much of the DBCP controversy stems from a 1961 study funded both by Dow and Shell Chemical at the University of California which determined that the chemical caused sterility in animals and recommended that "close observation of the health of people exposed to this compound should be maintained."

But the hearing disclosed that neither company had included this information on safety data sheets which it distributes both to customers and workers. Only in July, when the discovery of sterility cases came to light did the chemical companies send out warning notices, and even then they made no mention of the potential cancer hazard.

Staring into the blaze of television lights, Ted Bricker, an Occidental Chemical worker from Lathrop, Calif., now diagnosed as "infertile." testified that he had received neither special training nor instructions for handling DBCP.

Referring to company claims that trade secrets would be lost if all ingredients of chemical compounds were released to the public. Bricker said, "Competitors aren't our worry, it's our lives that we worry about."

Chemical companies did not question the validity of the 1961 report.

But industry representatives maintained that the delicate mature of the sterility problem - which can be determined only by collecting sperm from male workers - made constant monitoring impossible.

"If we requested a mass masturbation by employees, and that's what sperm counts are, I don't think based on this study we would have gotten anywhere," said Howard L. Kusnetz, manager of safety and industrial hygiene for the Shell Oil Co.

But neither Kusnetz nor Dow representatives could say whether either company has a consistent policy of passing health hazard information on to its employees.

Indeed, in 1973 Shell representatives at the Denver chemical plant surveyed potential fertility problems among employees only by checking personnel records to see if they had added any dependents while working at the plant. According to union officials, employees were unaware the study ever took place.

Dow representative defended on-site health programs, pointing out that workers using DBCP in their Pittsburg. Calif., plant and in Magnolia, Ark., were issued goggles, rubber safety shoes and neoprene aprons. But they were unable to respond fully when confronted with company data which showed that DCBP penetrates both rubber and neoprene.

Examinations at Pittsburg, where employees worked with DBCP less than two weeks a year, have shown no casses of sterility. But at Magnolia, where workers complained they once waded "ankle deep in DBCP," more than 50 employees are suffering from sterility.

Chemical companies did not deny the sterility claims. "It happened." said Dr. Peter Perry Gehring, director of the Dow toxicology research laboratory. "If you hear hoofbeats around the corner, you don't look for a kittycat."

However, the chemical companies dispute research which links DBCP and cancer. Referring to the study by the National Cancer Institute in which rats fore-fed with DBCP developed stomach malignancies. Gehring declares, "I have to conclude the studey was done very poorly."

Implying that it was published in the NCI's prestigious journal only due to "lack of independent review," Gehring said he would find it "unacceptable for publication in any reputable journal."

It was reported that on a visit ot Magnolia. Dow's Dr. Etcyl Blair, director of health and environmental research, told workers that risks of cancer came not from industrial chemicals but from smoking and eating fatty foods.

At the end of the second day's hearing, frustated chief counsel Peter Weiner said there seemed to be a problem discovering who had the corporate responsibility to develop well-documented information.

"We're trying," responded Shell's Kusnetz, "but we're not just jogging, we're running."

Hearings will resume Tuesday on the relationships between medical researchers, universities and the chemical companies.