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Deformities in infants blamed on migrant worker pesticide exposure

May 25, 2006 | AP North Carolina health officials urged closer communication between the state's agriculture, labor and health departments and stricter enforcement of pesticide laws after three severely deformed children were born to migrant farmworkers.

State health officials said a program starting in October will track pesticide illnesses.

"Right now, there are different agencies doing bits and pieces," said Sheila Higgins, a nurse with the Department of Health and Human Services who helped write the report issued Tuesday. "But nobody ever really pulls the data together to try to describe the number of cases (of pesticide poisoning) that are really occurring, and who it's happening to.

The report is the result of a 10-month study into whether pesticide exposure caused the deformities in children born to women who picked tomatoes for Ag-Mart, a Florida corporation that grows more than 1,000 acres of grape tomatoes in Brunswick and Pender counties.

The report said all three women worked in fields treated with pesticides known to cause birth defects at critical times in their pregnancies. The report said without knowing how much of the chemicals the women absorbed, there was no way to prove that pesticides caused the children's deformities.

The children were born within seven weeks of each other between December 2004 and February 2005. One child has no limbs; another has a deformed jaw; a third had no nose or visible sex organs and has since died.

Ag-Mart officials said the report established no link between chemicals and the deformities.

"We sincerely hope that we'll learn the truth someday soon and that it will offer some level of consolation to the families," Ag-Mart President Don Long said in a statement.

Agriculture Department inspectors said Ag-Mart failed to keep workers out of the fields for required intervals after spraying pesticides. The state Agriculture Department's pesticide section charged the company with 369 violations of pesticide law and asked health officials to investigate the cause of the birth defects.

Ag-Mart is contesting the charges. Company officials said their workers were protected from pesticide exposure and the state misinterpreted their records.

Some worker advocates believe the state should ban certain pesticides that are harmful to workers.

"You can educate farmworkers all day long, but it's not like they can say to their employers, `I'm not going in there.' They'll just get fired," said Fawn Pattison, director of the N.C. Agricultural Resources Center, which opposes pesticide use.

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