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Farmworkers, Illegal Exposure, and Birth Defects

Two field workers who gave birth to deformed babies were illegally exposed to pesticides more than 20 times each while they picked tomatoes in Eastern North Carolina, the state's Department of Agriculture data show.

A third worker, who spent most of her pregnancy working in Florida, was exposed four times during the less than six weeks that she worked in North Carolina, the data show.

All worked for Ag-Mart, a tomato-grower based in Florida, and they were illegally exposed to chemicals as often as three times a week, the documents show. Three of the 15 chemicals are linked to birth defects in lab animals.

One baby had no arms or legs. Another had a deformed jaw. The third had no nose and no visible sex organs and died soon after birth.

The women's exposures were illegal because they worked in fields too soon after pesticides were sprayed, data show. To protect workers, many pesticides require that workers be out of the fields for anywhere from a few hours to two days after spraying.

Ag-Mart says that none of its workers were illegally exposed to pesticides and that the Agriculture Department misinterpreted its records.

Andrew Yaffa, an attorney who represents the three women, said that the documents tell only part of the story.

"Sometimes it was more than once a day," Yaffa said. "They would come out of the fields covered. Their clothes would be green with pesticides. Their throats would be dry. They would be coughing. They were suffering from skin ailments."

Ag-Mart, which is privately held, grows about 1,100 acres of grape tomatoes in North Carolina's Brunswick and Pender counties, 125 miles southeast of Raleigh. The company employs about 500 people there during the growing season. It sells tomatoes under the brand name Santa Sweets.

State officials have been investigating Ag-Mart for about a year. The Agriculture Department has charged the company with 369 violations of state pesticide law, the largest pesticide case in state history. The company will have a hearing before the N.C. Pesticide Board on March 28.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is investigating whether the three babies' deformities are linked to pesticides. That report is expected in the next few weeks.

Until now, the evidence against Ag-Mart has remained private, because neither the Health Department nor the Agriculture Department has finished its investigation. The Agriculture Department opened its files last week to the Raleigh News & Observer.

Agriculture officials went through data that Ag-Mart provided to determine whether workers went into fields too soon after pesticides were sprayed.

The News & Observer looked at the dates of violations and at the work rec-ords of the three mothers to determine how often they were working in fields where violations occurred. The data show that the women frequently worked in fields on days when pesticides were applied.

Ag-Mart spokesman Leo Bottary said last week that pesticides were always applied to sections of the field where workers were not present. He said that the company's records aren't detailed enough to show which part of a field each worker was in.

The company will keep better rec-ords in the future, he said. Agriculture officials say they can work only with the data that the company provided.

"We put the burden of proof on them," said Patrick Jones, an enforcement manager for the Agriculture Department's pesticide section.

Worker advocates who have spent years following Ag-Mart employees say that Ag-Mart often exposes its workers to pesticides.

Greg Schell, a lawyer with Florida Legal Services, said that his staff surveyed 89 Ag-Mart workers last June. About half said they had been sprayed with pesticides within the past three months. Some, whose job it was to ap-ply pesticides, said they sprayed fields filled with workers, Schell said.

In 2004, the three women - Francisca Herrera, Sostenes Salazar and Maria De La Mesa Cruz - were among hundreds of Ag-Mart workers who traveled with the harvest, picking tomatoes in the company's fields in North Carolina, Florida, New Jersey and Mexico. All three are illegal immigrants.

Herrera and Salazar became pregnant in April, De La Mesa Cruz in May. Yaffa said that none of the women were available to comment for this story. With Yaffa's help, Herrera filed suit against the company Feb. 28, claiming that pesticide exposure is responsible for her son's deformities. She is asking for an undisclosed amount in damages.

The agriculture records show that Herrera, whose son was born in December 2004 with no arms and legs, started working in North Carolina in mid-April. During her first trimester, when a baby's limbs form, she was illegally exposed on 11 different days, the Agriculture Department data shows.

By the end of September, she had been exposed on 22 days. On four of those days, records show, she was exposed at least twice - once at the company's Brunswick County farm and once at the Pender County farm.

Salazar, whose son had an underdeveloped jaw, started work in North Carolina in June 2004. She was exposed on 25 days during the next 3 months, the analysis shows. De La Me-sa Cruz, whose child died, didn't start work in North Carolina until mid-September. She was exposed four days by the end of the month, the analysis shows.

Salazar and De La Mesa Cruz also worked in Florida and were exposed to pesticides there during their pregnancies, a Florida study shows. Their babies were born in February 2005.

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