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Pesticides in the fields, defects in workers' babies

Jun 3, 2006 | Palm Beach Post

Though it drew no definitive conclusions, a report by North Carolina health officials has strengthened the hypothesis that exposure to pesticides helped to cause severe deformities of three babies born to migrant farmworkers who worked for a Florida-based tomato grower.

The North Carolina Division of Public Health reported that, at critical times during their pregnancies, all three women worked in fields treated with pesticides known to cause birth defects. All worked in Ag-Mart Produce fields near Immokalee, northeast of Naples, and two of the mothers also worked for the company in North Carolina.

The babies were born in Southwest Florida within seven weeks of each other between December 2004 and February 2005. One child, Carlitos Candelario, was born without limbs; another had a deformed jaw; the third had no nose or visible sex organs and died shortly after birth. Florida has cited Ag-Mart for 89 pesticide violations, and North Carolina inspectors have accused the company of 369 violations.

The three women, unnamed in the report but interviewed by The Post, said they entered fields after pesticide spraying, without staying out for the intervals required for the chemicals to dissipate. In Carlitos' case, the report said, "Data indicate a plausible association between possible pesticide exposure and the limb deficiencies." Investigators believe that his mother, Francisca Herrera, unknowingly worked as many as 256 hours during restricted periods. The 29-page report said that at least two of the pesticides to which she was exposed are known to cause limb defects in animal testing. Ms. Herrera told investigators that she was sprayed with pesticides while working.

The circumstantial evidence linking pesticide exposure to the defects is overwhelming. No objective observer can look at the mothers' work history and not suspect that chemicals disfigured their children. No one knows how many other deformed children are out there. Farmworkers are reluctant to report problems, and health-care providers have a poor record of reporting cases to the state.

Making conditions safer will require more inspection and more fines for growers who break the rules. Florida inspects only 1.5 percent of the more than 40,000 growing operations each year because it has only 20 inspectors. This year, the Legislature appropriated about $700,000 to add 10 inspectors, but if current numbers hold true, more than 97 percent of the growers still will go unchecked. Legislators rejected proposals to tighten pesticide regulation and increase penalties for violators. The state's response barely qualifies as a decent start.

The North Carolina investigation is compelling. So is common sense. The mothers' exposure to pesticides was an avoidable risk, and neither the industry nor the state has done enough to protect workers.


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