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September 01, 2011

The horrific birth defects linked to tomato pesticides

by Barry Estabrook

The 'Immokalee babies' were born with severe deformities after their mothers were each exposed to pesticides whilst harvesting tomatoes. Barry Estabrook reports on the case that shocked the US

Tower Cabins is a labour camp ...just south of Immokalee, a city in the heart of southwest Florida’s tomato-growing region.

The community of poor migrant labourers is dreary at the best of times, but just before Christmas a few years ago, there were reasons for joy. Three women, all neighbours, were expecting children within seven weeks of each other. But in the lives of tomato workers, there is a fine line between hope and tragedy.

The first baby... was born with an extremely rare condition called tetra-amelia syndrome, which left him with neither arms nor legs.

About six weeks later, a few cabins away, Jesus Navarrete was born with Pierre Robin Sequence, a deformity of the lower jaw. As a result, his tongue was in constant danger of falling back into his throat, putting him at risk of choking to death. The baby had to be fed through a plastic tube.

Two days after Jesus was born, Maria Meza gave birth to Jorge. He had one ear, no nose, a cleft palate, one kidney, no anus, and no visible sexual organs. A couple hours later, following a detailed examination, the doctors determined that Jorge was in fact a girl. Her parents renamed her Violeta. Her birth defects were so severe that she survived for only three days.

In addition to living within one hundred yards of each other, Herrera, Maceda, and Meza had one other thing in common. They all worked for the same company, Ag-Mart Produce, Inc., and in the same vast tomato field.

From the rows of tomatoes where the women were working during the time they became pregnant, the view was not so cheery. A sign at the entry warned that the field had been sprayed by no fewer than thirty-one different chemicals during the growing season. Many of them were rated 'highly toxic,' and at least three, the herbicide metribuzin, the fungicide mancozeb, and the insecticide avermectin, are known to be 'developmental and reproductive toxins,' according to Pesticide Action Network. They are teratogenic, meaning they can cause birth defects.

If they are used, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandates 'restricted-entry intervals' (REIs in the jargon of chemical agriculture), the time that must elapse between when pesticides are applied and when workers can go into the fields. In all three cases, the women said they were ordered to pick the fruit in violation of REI regulations.

Although regulations require that handlers of many of these pesticides use protective eyewear, chemical-resistant gloves, rubber aprons, and vapour respirators, the three pregnant women said they had not been warned of the possible dangers of being exposed to the chemicals. They wore no protective gear, unless you count their futile attempts to avoid inhalation by covering their mouths with bandanas.

more...The Ecologist

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