March 15, 2005

State probing possible birth defect link among farmworkers' babies


State health officials are investigating whether there's a link between three babies born with severe birth defects to Mexican farmworkers and the pesticides they touched picking tomatoes in the same Collier County field.

The three mothers lived within 200 feet of each other at an Immokalee migrant camp, according to published reports in the Palm Beach Post on Sunday. A boy without arms or legs was born in December. A boy with an underdeveloped jaw was born in February and two days after a girl was born without visible sex organs. She died three days later, the Post reported.

Dr. Jerry Williamson, medical affairs' chief at Marion E. Fether Clinic, confirmed one of the mothers was seen at the Immokalee clinic. He declined to say which woman, citing privacy laws.

The birth defects in the three cases hoist red flags but the finger should not immediately be pointed at pesticides, he said, noting viruses, cigarette smoking and vitamin deficiency are among many factors that could contribute to birth defects.

"It's certainly something to be concerned about," Williamson said. "I think it's a little bit premature to determine. One has to look at the whole picture. It's certainly a very tragic, tragic thing for the families."

A sign at the Immokalee field said more than two dozen pesticides and herbicides are used there.

Collier County health officials are working with state environmental health officials to review the medical backgrounds of the three mothers.

"Are these three birth defects in a row that will still fit into the overall rate of birth defects or is there something that medically ties these three together?" said Deb Millsap, spokeswoman for the Collier County Health Department. "Sometimes you can't pinpoint an absolute cause. We may never know it's absolutely the pesticide."

From 1997 to 2001, Millsap said the 3.5 percent birth defect rate for every Collier birth fell near national averages of 3 percent from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 3.5 percent from the March of Dimes. That translates to 12 to 18 reportable birth defects in Immokalee each year, she said.

All six parents of the babies said they worked for Ag-Mart Produce, a Plant City-based company that markets its tomatoes as Santa Sweets.

"People have mentioned to me that maybe this has to do with chemicals," said Francisca Herrera, 19, whose son, Carlitos, has no limbs. "But I really don't know anything about that. I would like to know."

Ag-Mart was cited by the state three times between 1999 and 2003 for violating pesticide regulations in fields but not in Immokalee. Company officials said they surpass federal and state safety training standards for workers.

"We're looking into the issue of children born with birth defects to women who may have worked for our company," company president Don Long said.

"We care deeply about the health of our employees and take this concern extremely seriously."

By law, doctors are required to report medical conditions traced to pesticides to the state arm that monitors pesticide use in farm fields. That office falls under the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The agriculture department received no reports about the Immokalee cases from physicians.

Officials haven't determined yet if pesticides played a role in the births, Williamson said, explaining one reason for the lack of report. He said a firm connection hasn't been forged between pesticides and birth defects.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said studies have found an association between parents' exposures to pesticides and increased risks of their children having birth defects.

Few doctors do report medical conditions linked to pesticides to the state. The monitoring arm tallied only four reports from doctors in 2004 and eight in 2003.

A sole Collier County inspector is one of 40 throughout the state responsible for monitoring pesticide use and worker safety on Florida's farms, golf courses and nurseries, state officials said.

Kim Hainge, the state's coordinator for medical-related pesticide reports, said inspectors try to get to every farm at least once every two years.

"If a fairy godmother came along and could give you 40 more inspectors, could you do a better job? Yes. But they are working their tails off," she said. "You do what you can do."

Dale Dubberly, who heads the state's pesticide monitoring arm, said his department is looking into the Immokalee cases but privacy laws protecting medical records make establishing connections between health officials and the Department Agriculture and Consumer Services difficult.

The Immokalee birth defects expose fundamental flaws in how the state regulates pesticide use, advocates say. Lacking state enforcement puts farmworkers at risk, they say.

"It's a totally dysfunctional system. Few cases get reported and the system is not user-friendly. The department of agriculture views its mission as a cheerleader to agriculture and to put them in charge does seem like an odd choice," said Greg Schell, managing attorney of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth.

The Migrant Farmworker Justice Project reviewed 46 state worker injury complaints due to pesticides in the mid-1990s to find the state found 31 violations and only two fines.

Many farmworkers keep working once exposed to pesticides as initial symptoms can be flu-like, advocates say. Advocates say workers' knowledge about pesticides are slim.

Many Immokalee workers from rural Mexico or Guatemala speak dialects that aren't covered by brief company safety videos presented in English or Spanish before they start work in the fields, said Victor Grimaldo, an Immokalee-based organizer with The Farmworker Association of Florida.

"The knowledge is scant," he said, adding it's difficult to attract workers to their group for more training.

"No one complains to the state and when we do try to investigate, the companies don't let us come in."

When complaints are reported to the state, companies immediately put things in order, he said. "That intercepts the idea of enforcement."

Barbara Mainster, executive director of Redlands Christian Migrant Association, a nonprofit migrant education group with headquarters in Immokalee, said advocates must persist in heightening awareness about dangers.

"You know what they call pesticides in the field? Medicina para las plantas," or medicine for the plants, she said. "To call it medicina is part of the problem. It's incredibly lucky we get as few accounts as we do. This is more serious."

Lisa Butler, a Fort Myers attorney for Florida Rural Legal Services, said agencies with expertise in monitoring pesticides and science should be brought in to investigate the Immokalee cases.

"It seems to me that this is something that should be thoroughly investigated just as a matter of common sense or concern," she said.