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N.C. officials suggest possible pesticide, defect link

May 24, 2006 | Palm Beach Post Carlitos Candelario, the baby born without arms and legs to a poor fieldworker couple from Mexico, is at the center of a critical report by North Carolina health officials who say the child's mother appears to have been exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals while working for a Florida-based tomato grower.

The long-awaited report, released Tuesday by the epidemiology branch of the North Carolina Division of Public Health, draws no definitive conclusions about whether pesticide exposure caused the baby's birth defects or contributed to deformities in two other farmworker babies born in Collier County about the same time. But the 29-page report raises significant concerns about the effects of pesticides on pregnant women in general and questions whether the three women in the report faced overexposure in Ag-Mart Produce fields.

"While it is possible that the birth defects are unrelated to the case-mothers' occupational exposures,"the authors wrote, "there is evidence that the women's work environment likely put them at an increased risk of overexposure to pesticides."

The findings "warrant concern and action" by public health and regulatory agencies, the report concludes.

Don Long, president of Plant City-based Ag-Mart, which markets the popular Santa Sweets grape tomato and employed the three sets of parents in its North Carolina and Florida fields, said Tuesday in a written statement that his company has not violated pesticide procedures.

"We know for certain," Long said, "that such violations never took place as alleged. We do, however, agree wholeheartedly with the (North Carolina health department's) seven recommendations" for reform. "This is the kind of progressive action on behalf of workers and their safety with which we'd be happy to cooperate."

Long also stressed that the North Carolina study like a Florida study before it "found no conclusive link" between the deformities and pesticides.

The company still faces hundreds of pesticide violation charges in Florida and North Carolina, allegations Ag-Mart maintains are based on a faulty interpretation of company data listing when and where workers entered fields. Those cases are set to play out in administrative court.

In the meantime, health officials in the two states have tried to get a handle on what effect, if any, pesticide exposure might have played in the pregnancies of the three women. The women are not named in the report, but each has told her story to The Palm Beach Post.

The three babies were born in Southwest Florida between Dec. 17, 2004, and Feb. 6, 2005. Carlitos was born without limbs, Jesus Salazar with an underdeveloped jaw, and a third baby of confused gender died of multiple deformities.

"It cannot be determined with certainty whether maternal pesticide exposure caused (the) birth defects," the report said, because of the small number of cases, a lack of information about the amount of pesticide exposure and other factors.

Investigators, however, noted that Francisca Herrera, Carlitos' mother, worked in North Carolina in 2004 for almost six months, and about three of those months came during a critical period of her pregnancy.

"Based on records available, she possibly worked as many as 256 hours within the restricted entry interval for multiple pesticides," the report says.

The company has denied that workers entered fields during restricted times.

Herrera told investigators she was "sprayed with pesticides while working," the report says, before continuing with a potentially critical finding:

"The evidence suggests that she was exposed to pesticides during the period of gestation when limb development occurs. At least two of the pesticides to which she was possibly exposed have caused limb defects in animal testing."

Authors Ann Chelminski and Sheila Higgins conclude their summary of the Carlitos case by stating "there is a plausible association between this mother's possible occupational pesticide exposures in North Carolina and the limb defects seen in her child."

In the case of the baby with the malformed jaw, investigators found the possible link between pesticide exposure and birth defects was not as strong. They note a possible genetic cause the father has a very small jaw but do not rule out environmental factors. The mother, they say, may have entered fields too soon after pesticides were applied, and one of those pesticides has been linked in animal studies to jaw malformation. Like the other mothers, she has said she did not use drugs or medicines during her pregnancy.

The authors, who make a number of suggestions for better pesticide monitoring and practices, recommend the federal Environmental Protection Agency take a look at the mother's exposures in both North Carolina and Florida, and on Tuesday the agency confirmed it is doing so.

In the third case, the baby died and the mother returned to Mexico. That mother did not work in North Carolina during the critical period of her pregnancy although she did work in Florida and officials did not focus on her case. They noted, however, that some of her baby's deformities "have been reported in lab animals after pesticide exposure."

The attorney representing Carlitos, said the report is a sign that something is wrong with pesticide practices and enforcement.

"If you read between the lines of this report," he said, "it screams there is a link between pesticides and birth defects."

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