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 consisting of about thirty drab wooden shacks and a few deteriorating trailers crammed together behind an unpainted wooden fence 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, the son of twenty-year-old Abraham Candelario and his nineteen-year-old wife, Francisca Herrera, arrived on December 17. They named the child Carlos. Carlitos, as they called him, 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 to Sostenes Maceda. Jesus had 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. Consumers know Ag-Mart mainly through its trademarked UglyRipe heirloom-style tomatoes and Santa Sweets grape tomatoes, sold in plastic clamshell containers adorned with three smiling, dancing tomato characters named Tom, Matt, and Otto. ‘Kids love to snack on this nutritious treat,’ says the company’s advertising.
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.
‘When you work on the plants, you smell the chemicals,’ said Herrera, the mother of limbless Carlitos. Subsequent investigations showed that Herrera worked in fields that recently had been sprayed with mancozeb twenty-four to thirty-six days after conception, the stages where a child begins to develop neurologically and physically.
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