March 15, 2005

Probe urged in farmworker kids' birth defects

Farmworker advocates suggest chemicals led to three babies' defects.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

A Collier County commissioner says he will ask state officials to investigate whether Florida statutes were violated in the cases of three women, all Mexican farmworkers, who recently gave birth to children with serious birth defects.

The women and local advocates for farmworkers have raised the possibility that the defects were caused by contact with agricultural chemicals.

The three lived in the same small migrant labor camp in the town of Immokalee when they became pregnant last year. They all picked tomatoes for the same company in the same field where more than two dozen different herbicides, pesticides and fungicides were used during the year.

The company, Ag-Mart of Plant City, has said it is investigating. The women also worked in Ag-Mart fields in North Florida and North Carolina.

Commissioner Jim Coletta, who represents Immokalee, where the three migrant women live part of the year, said he plans to ask Dr. Joan Colfer, director of the Collier County Health Department, to determine whether statutes had been broken.

"I'm also going to get in touch with Mike Davis," Coletta said, referring to the state representative whose district includes Immokalee. "I'll ask at the state level, federal too, anyone I need to ask. I don't know for sure that statutes have been broken. Maybe they weren't. But we need to track this down."

According to state law, doctors who encounter physical illnesses or conditions caused by pesticides must report them to the state. Advocates for farmworkers say such reports are rare. Those advocates say the physicians should be required to report cases if they have reasonable suspicions that agricultural chemicals caused the medical conditions.

In the case of the three births in Immokalee, no such reports were made, according to Department of Agriculture officials who are responsible for investigating dangerous exposures to pesticides.

One of the children affected, Violeta Rueda, died Feb. 9, three days after being born with multiple birth defects. Carlos Candelario, born Dec. 17, has no arms or legs. A third child, Jesus Navarrete, was born Feb. 4 with an underdeveloped lower jaw and tongue and throat problems.

The Candelario baby, known as Carlitos, will need extensive medical attention. Brian Bennett, director of Catholic Rural Services of Immokalee, said Monday his office will establish a fund this week and accept donations to assist the family.

Coletta said he is pleased that people outside Immokalee are responding to the family's needs.

"That kid has visible defects, but you hear these chemicals might cause other problems," Coletta said. "How about the children who are born with problems that you can't see, long range problems like learning disabilities. We need to look into this."