FARMWORKER BABIES BIRTH DEFECTS DUE TO PESTICIDES?-Andrew Stelzer

03/17/05

The recent birth of 3 babies with birth defects to South Florida farm workers has brought on an investigation by state officials.

The farm workers town of Immokalee, In Collier County, is home to up to 15,000 farm workers, depending on the time of year. But as Brian Bennett is the director of Guadeloupe social services a branch of catholic charities in Immokalee explains, the last few months has brought tragedy to the community.

ACT-Bennett “Over the course of a month and a half 3 babies born…describes…the similarities re that all 3 mother do not have nay prior history of birth defects, they live in the same camp, they live in the same fields and so there were so many coincidences..

After being contacted by Bennett and other farm worker advocates, the palm Beach Post wrote a story about the children last week.

ACT-Bennett ‘We saw a larger needs for advocacy, no one was linking these cases until the press got involved..’

The head of the state's pesticide monitoring arm told the Naples daily news that 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. Collier county commissioner Jim Colletta has also called on the county’s department of health to try and determine what the cause of the birth defects was.

ACT-Colletta “There may have been a pesticide poisoning, there may be far reaching implications beyond these 3 children…’

Ag-Mart, the company which employs the women, was cited by the state three times between 1999 and 2003 for violating pesticide regulations in fields but not in Immokalee. A spokesman for Ag Mart, and its parent company, Santa Sweets, would not comment on tape, but in company press release saying that they are “looking into the issue of children born with birth defects to women who may have worked for the company, and mentioning that Santa Sweet has resolved to the satisfaction of the appropriate regulatory agencies any warning notices that we have received. 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. Because of this, by law, anytime a doctor has a suspicion of pesticide exposure they must report it to the state, but because of farm workers status as poor and transient people, that often doesn’t happen.

ACT-Bennett “If there is a link the breakdowns seem to be not with the law but with compliance with the law, they weren’t complied with/…there are laws that workers are not suppose to be in eth fields, but those laws aren’t always complied with and the consequences are no more than a slap on the wrist..’

The collier county health director has put together a task force to study the cases, which includes Mark Crowley is the collier county epidemiologist; Crowley says initial statistical examinations show that the rate of babies born with birth defects in the area is normal.

ACT-Crowley Immokalee collier and the state are all the same when it comes to the birth defect rate..So at this point in time we do not see anything unusual in the county or town…’’

Dr Joan Colfer, the collier county health director, says it hasn’t even been determined whether the women were working in Florida during the early part of their pregnancy, the time when most birth defects occur.

ACT-colfer “Remember all of the migrants work in a steam Carolinas, we need to find out if they worked in the fields and when in the pregnancy so we need to pair that with where and when they were working..�

Pesticides have been killing migrant farm workers for decades. Florida State University student Candelario Vasquez was raised by farm workers in Immokalee, and saw his father die from what he was exposed to in the fields.

ACT--Vasquez “He worked in pesticides and developed blood cancer, and only lasted 2 years, ive seen a lot of my cousins people who came in the 70s…�

Some of the problem may be a lack of education about the dangers of pesticides. The deadly chemicals are often called Medicina para las plantas," or medicine for the plants. Vasquez says it’s also a matter of the farm workers not being seen as people who deserve basic human rights.

ACT--Vasquez “The bosses used to get buckets and fill them with ditch water, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did that now, its just a lack of respect…’

Bennett says things haven’t changed.

ACT-Bennett ‘As we were looking into this, we heard an acceptance, thats how the industry works…if you were at a bank…�v

Collier County health officials are hoping to have some conclusion by the end of next week, but they say they may never find an answer.

ACT-colfer ‘Will we ever be able to say definitively one way or the other, I don’t know…yeah I want to agree, its very difficult to determine, especially if its something rare..�

Guadeloupe social services has set up the “tres ninos fund� to help the parents of the three babies. To contact them, call 239-826-6463

For WMNF news, I’m Andrew Stelzer

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