April 10, 2005

State ag unit joins probe of birth defects

Ag-Mart was cited three times between 1999 and 2003 for violations of pesticide safety regulations.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writers

IMMOKALEE The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has joined state health officials in investigating three cases of birth defects in children born to farmworker families here during a seven-week period.

During the past 13 days, investigators for the department have visited the fields on the outskirts of this town where all six parents worked early last year at the time the mothers became pregnant.

The parents and local representatives of the Catholic Church have requested an inquiry into whether the intense use of agricultural pesticides in those fields might have caused the defects. Florida uses more pesticides per planted acre than any other state.

Health officials have emphasized that the birth defects may have several possible causes: genetics, nutritional deficiencies, other environmental exposures or pesticides.

Deb Millsap, spokeswoman for the Collier County Health Department, which began investigating the cases in mid-March, said the county requested the involvement of the state agricultural investigators.

"We did it in the interest of being as complete as we can be in our investigation," Millsap said. "If there is a public health hazard involved, we want to know about it."

Dale Dubberly, chief of the Bureau of Compliance Monitoring, which oversees pesticide use for the Agriculture and Consumer Services Department, said two of his investigators are on the case. Dubberly gave no details about their inquiries at the work site.

All six parents worked in the same field for the same company, Ag-Mart, a subsidiary of the Procacci Brothers corporation of Philadelphia and marketers of Santa Sweets tomatoes.

The children were born between Dec. 17 and Feb. 6. One died of massive and multiple birth defects, another was born without arms and legs and the third has an underdeveloped lower jaw.

All three families also lived, at one time or another, at the same migrant housing complex, Tower Rentals, in this hardscrabble town. Dubberly said that, in addition to studying Ag-Mart's use of pesticides, his investigators will look for any dangerous pest control chemicals that may have been spread at the housing complex.

Health department inspectors say each of the three mothers, all Mexican, has answered a 92-page questionnaire, designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which is used nationally to try to establish the causes of birth defects.

Among the questions: What herbs or folk medicine did you take? How often did you bathe or shower and how long were your showers/baths? What is your total household income? How often did you wash clothes that had pesticides on them? Are you related to the father? Did you smoke cigarettes or were you exposed to secondhand smoke? Did you take drugs or drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages?

The health inspectors also took medical histories of two of the fathers one was not present at the time of the visits and of the infants.

All that information has been forwarded to Dr. Charles Williams, a clinical geneticist at the University of Florida, who will assess it and deliver findings back to the state.

It was not clear whether Williams would assess the possible involvement of pesticides. A long list of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides was posted for use at the fields in question, but health officials said they did not forward the list to Williams. It was not clear whether agriculture investigators had done so.

No lab tests have been done on either the parents or the two surviving children, said Dr. Mark Crowley, epidemiology director for Collier County. Williams' findings will determine whether those tests will be necessary, Crowley said.

Ag-Mart was cited three times between 1999 and 2003 for violations of pesticide safety regulations at other fields it operates around the state.

Joseph Procacci, chief of Procacci Brothers, the parent company, recently sent a letter to hundreds of his employees in the Immokalee area, in English and Spanish, expressing his "personal sadness over the situation" of the children born with birth defects.

"I want to assure you that the company takes this issue extremely seriously," Procacci wrote.

"Birth defects can happen for a number of reasons," he wrote. "Folic acid deficiency, genetic history and ingestion or inhalation of certain chemicals by the father of the child at the time the pregnancy occurs can all cause defects, as can inhalation of chemicals by the mother during pregnancy."

Procacci told his workers that an internal investigation is under way and an independent environmental consulting firm would review the company's practices regarding worker safety. A spokesman for the company, David Sheon, refused to divulge the name of that consulting firm.