April 16, 2005


A boy named Carlitos

The Florida Department of Agriculture has joined health officials in investigating three cases of birth defects in children of Immokalee farmworkers. While the state must help determine what caused the terrible deformities, it's difficult to have confidence in an agency that has failed its obligation to effectively monitor pesticide use in the first place. Until the state gets serious about regulation and creates an independent body to handle inspections and enforcement, Florida will stand as the example of how not to ensure workers' safety.

Consider that each year, California regulators document hundreds of cases of pesticide poisoning among farmworkers. Florida typically finds none, though the state's growers use more chemicals per acre than in any other state. California has independent inspectors, working for a separate agency, while Florida entrusts inspections to an agriculture department that puts a higher priority on protecting farmers than the people who work the fields. California also requires doctors to report suspected cases of poisoning to authorities. While Florida doctors are supposed to do the same, only a few reports come in each year. The disparity in numbers shows how badly the state needs a new approach to oversight.

The Post reported that all six parents of the deformed children, born between Dec. 17 and Feb. 6, worked in the same field for the same company, Ag-Mart, and lived close to each other. Investigators have two questions to answer: Are agricultural chemicals to blame for the deformities of these babies? Or are there other environmental, nutritional or genetic causes? Ag-Mart is enthusiastic when it comes to talking about the second question but doesn't like considering the first. What little regulation the state has done produced three citations for pesticide safety violations in the company's fields between 1999 and 2003. Besides looking into the cause of the deformities, the state should check Ag-Mart's operations to ensure other workers' safety.

One of the infants, Carlitos Candelario, was born without arms and legs. He is living with his parents at an Immokalee homeless shelter while social workers seek permanent lodging for the family, perhaps in Homestead or Florida City, so he can more easily get treatment at Miami Children's Hospital. No matter what the investigations uncover, the state's deplorable record demands reform, and help for Carlitos and his family.