Chemical warfare: the horrific birth defects linked to tomato pesticides

pesticide defects
Carlos Candelario was born without arms and legs. His mother had been exposed to a cocktail of toxic pesticides whilst harvesting tomatoes
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.

Safety violations

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.

Meza recalled: 'It has happened to me many times that when you are working and the chemical has dried and turned to dust that you breathe it.' 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.

Herrera said she felt sick the entire time she worked in the field. She described being coated in pesticides and suffering from dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and lightheadedness. Her eyes and nose felt as though they were burning. She developed rashes and open sores.

Giving up work was not an option. Herrera said that her boss, a subcontractor to Ag-Mart, told her if she did not work, she would be kicked out of the room that he was providing. Ironically, the impending arrival of her first child made it all the more important for her and her husband to have a place to live. She worked in the fields from preconception, through the early stages of gestation, right up until her seventh month of pregnancy, only a few weeks before Carlitos’s slightly premature arrival. Even after quitting the fields, she continued to hand wash the chemical-soaked clothes of her husband and her brother, Epifanio.

Jesus’s jaw deformity proved not to be as dangerous as first thought, and doctors told his mother that the baby’s condition would likely improve as he grew older. Violetta’s parents had to mourn the death of their child. But after the birth of Carlitos, Herrera and Candelario’s problems intensified. The end of the winter picking season in Florida was approaching, and the family would have to migrate north to find work. But Carlitos needed constant medical attention, which he was receiving through a local agency, the Children’s Medical Services of Lee County. Even though he was an American citizen by birth, his parents were Mexican and had no documentation. Deportation was a real possibility.

Things took a turn for the worse when at three months of age the baby developed respiratory problems that made it difficult for him to breathe. He had to be flown from a hospital near Immokalee to Miami Children’s Hospital. Lacking a car, Herrera and Candelario had to rely on rides from social workers to make the journey across the state, trips that took two and a half hours one way and could be undertaken only on days when Candelario was not required in the fields, where he still had to work to pay the rent. 'There was nothing we could do for our little boy,' said Candelario.

Legal help

One of the social workers helping Carlitos’s parents realised that the family faced an insurmountable financial burden and needed legal help. The social worker contacted a local lawyer, who confessed that he would have been completely over his head with such a complex case. He did, however, have a colleague who specialised in catastrophic personal injury, product liability, and medical malpractice litigation.

He picked up the telephone and put in a call to Andrew Yaffa, a partner in the firm Grossman Roth, which has offices in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Sarasota, and Key West. Although they had no way of knowing it, Abraham Candelario, Francisca Herrera, and Carlitos had just caught what might have been the first break they had ever received in their hardscrabble lives. If you are injured in a car accident, hurt on the job, or the victim of a negligent physician, you could do no better than getting Andrew Yaffa to represent you.

As soon as I met him, I understood why Andrew Yaffa became such a successful lawyer. The day I visited, he was working out of the boardroom in his firm’s Boca Raton office. 'I live out of a FedEx box,' he said. 'I serve every office we have.' That afternoon he had taken over the conference room table. File folders were strewn here and there. His laptop was open. His expensive suit coat was folded over the back of a chair, and his tie was loose. Every few minutes when a cell phone on the table warbled, he glanced at its caller ID and replaced it without missing a conversational beat.

In his early forties at the time of Carlitos’s birth in 2004, Yaffa is widely recognised as one of the top lawyers in the state. He has won many multimillion dollar settlements in cases tried before some of Florida’s toughest judges. One of Yaffa’s competitors in Florida described him to me in an e-mail as 'a great lawyer...solid person...integrity...partner in a fabulous law firm...creative...innovative...bright...ethical...the works!'

Yaffa is tall and has the sort of telegenic good looks that would make him a shoo-in to play the role of the leading man if someone ever does a movie version of his life as a crusading attorney. His short dark hair is brushed back and moussed neatly in place, and I caught the merest whiff of cologne. His handsome face is tempered by a kind of Midwestern earnestness. (He’s actually a Virginia native.)

Yaffa establishes an instant rapport, speaking with a soft, unwavering voice. When I asked him why he chose to take on such a long shot case as that of Carlitos Candelario, he eyed me the way he might stare at an uncooperative witness and said, 'I see a lot in my work. But when I see a child or a family that has been harmed and in distress, I don’t need a whole lot more motivation than that.'

Initially, Yaffa could hardly believe what his friend had told him. He needed to see for himself and to talk to the child’s parents. Were they people who would come across as credible? Would a jury relate to them? Would they even want his help? Leaving behind his usual car, a new BMW, to avoid drawing attention to himself, he got in the road-weary Chevy Suburban reserved for weekend fishing outings and trips to the beach with his kids and drove from his Miami office across miles of uninhabited saw grass prairies in the Everglades to the shabby two-bedroom trailer that the young couple and their tragically deformed child shared with seven other migrants.

When Yaffa knocked on the door, Herrera answered. He was struck by the fact that the petite, round-faced woman was barely older than a child herself. All the men who lived in the trailer were in the fields. Carlitos was propped up in a baby seat. Strips of drying meat hung from a clothesline stretched across the living room, and the humid air was rank and pungent. Flies buzzed everywhere. When Carlitos began fussing, Herrera took the six-month-old baby out of the seat and laid him on the floor. An orphaned puppy that the trailer’s residents had adopted came bouncing around, and the child watched it, smiling and cooing.

'No arms, no legs'

The puppy yipped, pounced, and started nipping at the baby. Carlitos began to scream, and Herrera rushed to pick him up. Yaffa was powerfully affected. The child, who did not even have the ability to flick away a fly or push back against a puppy, faced a lifetime of need. 'The pesticides got into her system and affected this child that was forming and lo and behold, he ends up being born with no arms and no legs,' he told me.

Speaking in Spanish, he tried to draw out Herrera, who spoke very little Spanish herself. As is the case of many migrant farmworkers, her first language and the one she was most comfortable communicating in was a native Indian dialect. Yaffa explained that a social worker had contacted him, and he was there for one reason—to help her. He told Herrera that there was no pressure for her to work with him. As is the norm for lawyers in his field, he would bear all the legal expenses himself and be paid only by taking a percentage of anything they won.

When Herrera finally nodded her head, Yaffa vowed that he would do everything in his power to help his new client. But even a lawyer of his track record and courtroom acumen had his work cut out for him. Because of all the nearly infinite variables—heredity, exposure to chemicals at other job sites, possible smoking or drug abuse, environmental factors—cases linking pesticide exposure to birth defects are notoriously hard to prove.

Instead of pursuing the conventional approach by trying to determine the chemical that caused the damage and suing the company that made it, Yaffa decided to do something he had never done: He would try to get compensation from the corporate farm where Herrera had worked. In essence, he would try the entire modern agricultural industry and the chemical-based philosophy on which it is founded.

Extracted from the ‘Chemical Warfare’ chapter of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook, published by Andrews McMeel Publishing

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