Farmers may continue to use two fungicides suspected of causing birth defects, genetic damage and cancer because "the benefits of these products exceed the risks," the Environmental Protection Agency has decided.

The EPA has ruled that farmers can continue to use benomyl and thiophanate-methyl on a wide variety of crops, including apples, soybeans, celery, beans, sugar cane, peanuts, nuts and ornamental plants even though the two chemicals are considered dangerous.

Benomyl first came under EPA scrutiny in 1977 when the chemical and the material into which it metabolizes, called MBC, were accused of causing birth defects and genetic damage.

The EPA said its extensive probe has shown that benomyl can cause tumors in laboratory animals, but it said there is no direct evidence that it causes birth defects.

The agency said it will now require that anyone who mixes or loads benomyl for aerial application wear a dust mask, as a way of minimizing the risks.

The EPA is not requiring masks for persons handling thiophanate-methyl because it doesn't consider that chemical to be as dangerous.

If farmers were restricted from using the fungicides, the EPA said, it could cost them as much as $52 million a year in extra expenses and decreased crop production. Other economic losses also could be expected from higher consumer prices, the agency said. ***