Why was Carlitos born this way?
He's one of three Immokalee babies who were born horribly disfigured to mothers and fathers who work together in Florida's fields.
Sunday, March 13, 2005
By John Lantigua, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Carlos Candelario, known as Carlitos, was born Dec. 17 without arms or legs.
On Feb. 4, Jesus Navarrete, whose parents live about 100 feet away from Carlitos' family, was born with Pierre Robin syndrome. His jaw is underdeveloped, and that causes his tongue to fall into his throat, and he risks choking.
Two days later, on Feb. 6, Maria Meza gave birth to a child missing its nose, an ear and with no visible sexual organs. At first the child was given the name Jorge, but hours later was renamed Violeta after a more detailed examination determined that the baby was a girl. She died three days later of massive birth defects.
Meza now lives about a mile away, but in 2004, when they became pregnant, all three mothers lived within 200 feet of one another at the same migrant labor camp, called Tower Cabins. All of them are Mexicans and worked for the same produce company, picking tomatoes, in the same field just off Camp Keais Road in Immokalee. More than two dozen different pesticides and herbicides are used in that field.
When the harvest was completed in Immokalee, they moved on to fields in North Florida and North Carolina, but they say they continued to work for the same employer and were again exposed to agricultural chemicals. Two of the women say they worked until they were seven months pregnant. Meza quit the fields after two months.
Which raises the question: Are agricultural chemicals to blame for the plight of these babies? Or are there other environmental, nutritional or genetic causes?
At the moment, no one can answer with certainty. But the extraordinary convergence of three such serious birth defects among migrant families who live and work so closely together has alarmed Florida's migrant advocates and raised the concerns of the employer and state agriculture officials.
"People have mentioned to me that maybe this has to do with chemicals," says Francisca Herrera, 19, Carlitos' mother. "But I really don't know anything about that. I would like to know."
After being notified of the cases recently by The Palm Beach Post, Dale Dubberly, chief state official for pesticide investigation, said his office would begin an inquiry.
The births, Dubberly said, "may have nothing to do with pesticides, but we'll try to get to the facts."
On its Web site titled "America's Children and the Environment," the federal Environmental Protection Agency states: "Studies evaluating the role of pesticides in birth defects have found an association between maternal and paternal exposure to pesticides and increased risks of offspring having or dying from birth defects."
Grower cited in pesticide violations
The field in Immokalee where all six parents worked is operated by Ag-Mart, a produce company based in Plant City that markets tomatoes under the name Santa Sweets. At the entrance to that field is posted a list of 38 separate products involving some 30 chemicals used on the crops during the year.
According to EPA reports, at least one of the chemicals, a herbicide called metribuzin "is associated with developmental toxicity effects" in tests on lab animals.
The Pesticide Action Network, an international watchdog group based in California, goes further. It lists the chemical as "a reproductive and developmental toxin," which means it has the potential to harm fetuses and children.
Makers of pesticides and herbicides insist such products are developed with a wide margin of error and are safe for workers and consumers if employed properly. But that doesn't always happen.
The EPA report on metribuzin specifically warns that "field workers" are at risk if they inhale the chemical. The warning calls for special protective equipment to be used when it is applied and also requires that workers wait 12 hours before entering a field where the chemical has been employed.
Between 1999 and 2003, Ag-Mart was cited three times by state inspectors for violations of pesticide regulations in its Florida fields. Those violations involved the precise EPA concerns attached to a chemical such as metribuzin: failure to keep workers out of fields for a sufficient time after chemicals have been used, failure to provide proper protective equipment and failure to keep proper records of pesticide and herbicide use.
"We base our risk assessments on how the products are used," says William Wooge, an environmental protection specialist for the EPA, which approves agricultural chemicals. "People should follow the label. We look very carefully at those reentry intervals."
An even larger potential problem is that chemicals normally are tested and approved one at a time, not in combination, which is how they are habitually used in the fields.
"There has not been much study on that," says Dr. Stuart Brooks, a professor at the College of Medicine and Public Health in Tampa and a former member of the Florida Pesticide Exposure Surveillance Board. "I don't think anyone really knows the effects."
The EPA says it is studying those combinations now but concedes that intensive investigation started only in 1996 and that results are inconclusive.
'Looking into the issue'
Those violations for which Ag-Mart was cited in the past occurred in Plant City and Bonita Springs. The Post requested of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services any new records involving Ag-Mart, including in Immokalee. The department, responsible for enforcing federal pesticide laws in Florida, did not provide the requested records in time for this article.
Don Long, president of the company, issued a prepared statement in response to questions from The Post.
"We're looking into the issue of children born with birth defects to women who may have worked for our company," Long stated. "We care deeply about the health of our employees and take this concern extremely seriously.
"Santa Sweets has developed and instituted very detailed practices and procedures for our employees who handle or are exposed to crop protection materials," he said. "We take pride in our meeting or exceeding federal and state safety training regulations for every employee."
Long said the company had resolved past warnings received. In a brief conversation, he also said his company had never been fined by the Department of Agriculture for those past violations.
The case of Ag-Mart is not unusual: In Florida, where more pesticides are used per acre than in any other state, growers are rarely fined when they break the rules.
According to state records reviewed by The Post, between 1993 and 2003 Florida inspectors found 4,609 violations of pesticide regulations, but only 7.6 percent resulted in fines.
The department employs some 40 inspectors statewide under the Bureau of Compliance Monitoring in Tallahassee, which is supposed to enforce pesticide laws. But critics say the salaries and operating costs are a waste of taxpayer money.
"The department's basic task is to work with farmers to increase their business, and it does an ineffective job of monitoring worker safety," says Lisa Butler, an attorney for Florida Rural Legal Services in Fort Myers. "It's a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse. There is an inherent conflict of interest in the Department of Agriculture investigating pesticide cases."
"Pesticide exposure is a serious health issue," says attorney Greg Schell of the Migrant Farmworker Justice project in Lake Worth. "The Department of Agriculture people aren't doctors. There is no rationale for them being in charge of this."
Dubberly, the chief state official for pesticide investigation, refutes those opinions. He says the job of his office is to "register pesticide use and to make sure they are being used properly" and that his staff does that. He says his inspectors have nothing to do with increasing growers' profits and that there is no conflict of interest.
Few medical reports of exposure
It is state law that a doctor who believes that a medical condition was caused by pesticides must report it to state authorities. Dubberly said his office coordinates with Florida Department of Health officials in monitoring and investigating those complaints.
But his department had not been notified of the birth defects recorded in Immokalee by any member of the medical profession - despite the fact that the women were treated at a private, nonprofit clinic in Immokalee. And, according to the mothers, in all three cases doctors at local hospitals involved in the deliveries or treatment of the babies asked them about their work in agriculture.
Kim Hainge, the official in Dubberly's office in charge of receiving reports on pesticide-related medical conditions, admits that aspect of the system does not work.
"In all of 2004, we received only four such reports," Hainge says. "In 2003, it was all of eight. I know it can't be accurate."
By contrast, California, in 2003 - the last year for which figures were available - investigated 1,232 cases of "pesticide illness" and confirmed 802 cases. Of those, 405 occurred in agricultural settings.
Unlike Florida, California has a separate Department of Pesticide Regulation, part of its Environmental Protection Agency and independent of its agriculture department.
"It's not because we don't have the incidents in Florida, it's that our system for investigating pesticide violations and enforcing the laws doesn't work," says Schell.
Hainge says she believes doctors in Florida are reluctant to make diagnoses of pesticide illnesses.
Butler goes further. She says medical personnel avoid the problem.
"There is this reluctance to ask why this kind of thing happens," Butler says. "I have seen dozens of pesticide experiences where the patients were treated but were never asked about how it happened. The statute requiring a report is uniformly ignored by physicians."
Peter Leventis, the director of the Marion E. Fether Medical Center in Immokalee, where the mothers were seen, said his clinic had not notified state officials.
"I was not aware of that law," said Leventis, who came from Georgia 18 months ago to his current position. "The truth is that pesticide exposure was not even on my radar.
"We need to spend more time raising the awareness about potential problems," he said, expressing concern for the three families.
Legal and medical experts say proving that exposure to pesticides in one place during a specific period caused a birth defect is enormously difficult. Individuals have radically different reactions to the chemicals. Also, other environmental factors, as well as genetics, could be the cause of defects.
A number of birth defects in the Guatemalan community of Palm Beach County in the 1990s was eventually pegged to low levels of folic acid in the mothers' diets.
So medical and scientific personnel may be reticent to bring up the possibility of pesticides.
"They always say what they need is a cluster," Butler says. A cluster is considered two or more pesticide illness cases that may be related. "Well, this seems to be a cluster staring them right in the face. They can at least study it."
Carlitos' family deals with crisis
The three mothers say there is no history of birth defects in their families or those of their mates, as far as they know. They all come from different towns in Mexico and are not related. Two of the women, Meza and Sostenes Maceda, the mother of Jesus Navarrete, have other children who are apparently healthy and who were born before they started work in Immokalee. For Francisca Herrera, Carlitos is her first child.
The three mothers all say they don't remember ever being accidentally sprayed with pesticides and that no aerial spraying was done while they worked. But they always wore bandanas over their mouths to try to protect themselves from residue.
"When you work on the plants, you smell the chemicals," said Herrera.
"It has happened to me various times that when you are working and the chemical has dried and turned to dust, you breathe it," says Meza. "They say it's dangerous."
Meza says she has asked for autopsy results on her dead daughter, but that report will take several weeks to produce. Maceda's child, Jesus, must undergo various examinations to determine what other problems he may have. It is expected that the condition with his jaw and tongue will be resolved as he grows, she says.
Herrera says her son, Carlitos, is acting normal despite having no arms and legs.
"He eats well and he sleeps well, and I think he is intelligent because it seems sometimes that he already wants to talk," she says proudly. Carlitos will be baptized today.
But Herrera and her husband, Abraham Candelario, are facing a crisis: Tomato work in South Florida will soon end, and Candelario will have to move the family farther north to continue the harvest.
Nancy Ruby, an official at Children's Medical Services of Lee County, where Carlitos is a patient, says that would be a tragedy. The child, born in the U.S. and therefore an American citizen, is eligible for help.
"We are all set to give that little guy every service we can to help him," she says. "But if they go back on the road, he will get lost somewhere. They can't leave here."
She says the family will need permission to stay and work in Florida, despite the fact that the parents are undocumented.
"It's very sad. I've never seen anything like this," says Ruby, "but maybe this will get people's attention and hopefully figure out why these things happen."
Staff writer Christine Stapleton and researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.
Probe urged in farmworker kids' birth defects
Farmworker advocates suggest chemicals led to three babies' defects.
Tues., March 15, 2005
By John Lantigua, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A Collier County commissioner says he will ask state officials to investigate whether Florida statutes were violated in the cases of three women, all Mexican farmworkers, who recently gave birth to children with serious birth defects.
The women and local advocates for farmworkers have raised the possibility that the defects were caused by contact with agricultural chemicals.
The three lived in the same small migrant labor camp in the town of Immokalee when they became pregnant last year. They all picked tomatoes for the same company in the same field where more than two dozen different herbicides, pesticides and fungicides were used during the year.
The company, Ag-Mart of Plant City, has said it is investigating. The women also worked in Ag-Mart fields in North Florida and North Carolina.
Commissioner Jim Coletta, who represents Immokalee, where the three migrant women live part of the year, said he plans to ask Dr. Joan Colfer, director of the Collier County Health Department, to determine whether statutes had been broken.
"I'm also going to get in touch with Mike Davis," Coletta said, referring to the state representative whose district includes Immokalee. "I'll ask at the state level, federal too, anyone I need to ask. I don't know for sure that statutes have been broken. Maybe they weren't. But we need to track this down."
According to state law, doctors who encounter physical illnesses or conditions caused by pesticides must report them to the state. Advocates for farmworkers say such reports are rare. Those advocates say the physicians should be required to report cases if they have reasonable suspicions that agricultural chemicals caused the medical conditions.
In the case of the three births in Immokalee, no such reports were made, according to Department of Agriculture officials who are responsible for investigating dangerous exposures to pesticides.
One of the children affected, Violeta Rueda, died Feb. 9, three days after being born with multiple birth defects. Carlos Candelario, born Dec. 17, has no arms or legs. A third child, Jesus Navarrete, was born Feb. 4 with an underdeveloped lower jaw and tongue and throat problems.
The Candelario baby, known as Carlitos, will need extensive medical attention. Brian Bennett, director of Catholic Rural Services of Immokalee, said Monday his office will establish a fund this week and accept donations to assist the family.
Coletta said he is pleased that people outside Immokalee are responding to the family's needs.
"That kid has visible defects, but you hear these chemicals might cause other problems," Coletta said. "How about the children who are born with problems that you can't see, long range problems like learning disabilities. We need to look into this."
Grower drops suspect pesticides
Ag-Mart Produce says it no longer will use chemicals linked to birth defects, asserting there is 'nothing in the investigation that will say we should do this.'
Sat., Oct. 1, 2005
By Christine Stapleton and Christine Evans, Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Ag-Mart Produce, the giant Florida tomato grower at the center of an investigation involving three deformed babies born to fieldworkers, announced Friday it will no longer use pesticides that have been linked to birth defects.
"The recent issues that have been brought to light have caused the company to look further and harder," Ag-Mart spokesman David Sheon said. "The company has a history of wanting to be a leader in the reduction of pesticides."
He added that there is "nothing in the investigation that will say we should do this. It's the right thing for the environment, as well as the workers overall."
Farmworker advocates who have lobbied for years for tighter pesticide controls were delighted but guarded.
"I think it's a good step forward," said Shelley Davis of the Farmworker Justice Fund in Washington. "We would call on them to work with us so others in the industry will follow suit. It shows they can grow these products profitably without highly toxic pesticides, and hopefully that will be a model that others will adopt."
"That's really wonderful," said Lisa Butler, attorney for Florida Rural Legal Services and a former member of the state's now-defunct Pesticide Exposure Surveillance Board. "It's a major step in the direction of decreasing the risks that farmworkers face in the agricultural workplace."
Butler said the move by Ag-Mart might signal sweeping industry changes in pesticide use - and improved working conditions for farmworkers throughout the state - "if we can get similar changes from other agricultural interests."
Whether other companies will follow suit remains to be seen. Ag-Mart's announcement at midday Friday came after the company had answered questions from The Palm Beach Post for a story about the company's pesticide practices.
In a few days, agricultural investigators in Florida and North Carolina are expected to issue pesticide-related notices of violation against the company. Officials would not elaborate on their findings.
A separate but related report by state and Collier County health officials will address the specific issue of whether chemicals used at Ag-Mart might have contributed to the babies' deformities. That report is expected in about a month.
Andrew Yaffa, the attorney representing one of the three babies, Carlos Candelario Herrera, who was born Dec. 17 with no arms and legs, said the company's decision to eliminate some pesticides is "essentially an admission that the chemicals they've been knowingly exposing these workers to do cause harm."
Methyl bromide remains
"I applaud their initial effort," Yaffa said. "However, if they were true in their desire to protect these workers from exposure and the harm it causes, why in the world would you continue to use methyl bromide, which you know causes birth defects?"
Methyl bromide is the only one of six "conventional agricultural chemicals that have been suspected to carry reproductive risks when applied at high dosage levels" that the company is not discontinuing, said Sheon, the Ag-Mart spokesman.
In a two-page statement, Ag-Mart said it "cannot at this time find a suitable" and cost-effective replacement for methyl bromide, a soil fumigant banned in the United States except for emergency or "critical use" exemptions, which Florida growers such as Ag-Mart readily obtain. The chemical is known to damage the ozone layer and at high levels has been linked to birth defects in baby rabbits.
Ag-Mart President Don Long said in a statement that the company is experimenting with alternatives "so that the chemical can be phased out as soon as possible." Scientific research is sketchy about the role pesticides might play in birth defects in humans. Studies can take years and often are inconclusive. But some research has found an association between pesticides and birth defects.
The case of los tres ninos, as the investigation into the three births was dubbed, broke to big headlines last spring after outreach workers for a Catholic Charities program in the Southwest Florida town of Immokalee discovered that two boys and a girl had been born in rapid succession with significant deformities.
One has no arms or legs; another with no clear gender died after three days; a third suffers a jaw condition that causes his tongue to fall back into his throat.
The parents were fieldworkers who had taken jobs in Ag-Mart fields; the three women each had worked during at least the early, and critical, parts of their pregnancies.
The outreach workers for Guadalupe Social Services brought the babies to the attention of The Post in February, and a state investigation began soon after.
"It has taken a long time," said Deb Millsap of the Collier County Health Department. "They want to do a very complete investigation. They've been out there in the fields interviewing. They've pulled in experts."
The investigation was made more difficult, Millsap said, by its very nature: Farmworkers often migrate, and so do their supervisors. "We had to track them down."
In an interview last week, Long said his company had reviewed its pesticide management and that the company takes every measure possible to ensure the safety of its workers and its product.
"We take a lot of care," he said. "Our employees are our number one concern."
And while he has publicly expressed sympathy for the three families, he said he does not think the deformities are linked to pesticides used in Ag-Mart fields: "We feel that we have completely used products within tolerance levels within this operation. We don't see any connection between our farms and these birth defects."
Since the investigation began in mid-March, several employees of the Plant City-based company have quit or been fired. Two had pesticide-related responsibilities in the Immokalee field where most of the parents worked, and a third said he was too worried about his own chemical "exposure" to stay on the job.
An air of paranoia now drifts over the fields, some workers say.
For example, one Ag-Mart labor contractor said he was so concerned about the way pesticides were used on company farms that he has taken to carrying a camera to work - "so I can prove it."
Juan Anzualda, another crew leader, said he no longer works with Ag-Mart, but when he did, company officials would pump him to see what he had told investigators.
"Every day," he said, "a woman from HR (human resources) called to ask, 'Do you have any new information?' "
And a former employee who said he was fired recalled hopping onto a tractor to spray pesticides, only to be pelted with tomatoes by angry fieldworkers.
"They were yelling" because they were worried they would be hit by the mist, he said. "Man, it was so chaotic out there, you didn't know who was who and what was what."
Cooperation with state
All of this distresses Long, the company president, who has worked for Ag-Mart and an affiliated company since he got out of college 30 years ago.
The company, he stressed, has cooperated fully with investigators for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, giving them access to any records and employees they wish.
The company also recently set up a toll-free bilingual anonymous tip line so employees can report pesticide problems without fear of retribution. The company said it investigates the tips and issues the employee a tracking number so he can follow up anonymously. In addition, Ag-Mart has increased monitoring by an independent auditor who reviews pesticide practices and tests for residue on Ag-Mart tomatoes.
According to records from Florida's pesticide residue lab that were provided by Ag-Mart, the company's tomatoes from three states and Mexico have been tested 53 times in the past five years. In nearly half the samples, no pesticides were detected. In the other half, residue fell well within established tolerance levels.
Long, who said he tries to visit each Ag-Mart farm every two weeks and personally designs the pesticide programs, said he is focusing on developing innovative organic farming techniques that minimize the need for pesticides.
Some workers doubt the company's sincerity when it comes to worker safety.
The Post interviewed more than a dozen current and former crew leaders, supervisors, pickers and other workers with knowledge of Ag-Mart operations. The paper also reviewed state documents. The interviews and records reflected a concern that the company kept sloppy records, did not always train its workers properly and was sometimes indifferent to worker safety.
Most of the workers, past and present, would not allow their names to be used, saying they feared they would be blackballed in the tight-knit farming community.
"It would be my name in the paper against Ag-Mart," one said. "No way. I got a family to look out for."
A midlevel former employee with close knowledge of field operations said he once complained to an Ag-Mart supervisor after chemicals drifted onto workers in the field. The supervisor's response: "He said if we weren't pregnant, we shouldn't worry about it."
Another ex-employee, who said he acted as a low-level go-to guy, performing a variety of odd jobs - including spraying - described a chaotic operation in which ill-trained workers were told to spray pesticides and large work crews were sometimes asked to enter a portion of the field soon after.
"I'd spray this section, in front, and the people would be picking that section" in back, he said, "and as soon as I would be done, the people would be in the section I sprayed. . . . You just do what you're told."
Workers often complained, he said. "People would get mad. We'd spray when they'd be eating lunch. We'd be spraying 100 feet, maybe a little more away."
'Drift' poses problems
Like other Ag-Mart workers, and workers for other farming operations, the worker said "drift" from pesticides posed a persistent problem. Some field hands developed coughs, respiratory problems, rashes and headaches.
"It could drift, you could smell it. It could drift for hours. . . . Do I remember ever getting sick? Yeah, don't we all."
Anzualda, the crew leader, said, "If we had to pick, we picked. No question about it. . . . There was more than one (spraying) incident." Long, however, insisted that company policy clearly states that spraying will not be allowed when workers are so close that pesticides could drift onto them.
"We are not going to be spraying pesticides that will hit workers while they are working," he said. "Are the winds too great? Then we don't have people there."
A recent survey suggests otherwise.
The Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, an advocacy group, interviewed dozens of Ag-Mart field workers about pesticide exposure. Twenty-two percent of 78 workers surveyed said they had been sprayed directly with chemicals while working in Immokalee or Wimauma for Ag-Mart during a single month, May this year.
Forty percent said they had been "hit by pesticides drifting" from a nearby field during that same month. The survey did not ask about exposure during the rest of the season or other seasons.
Lawyer Greg Schell of the Justice Project said Friday's announcement by Ag-Mart was "fabulous." He said studies by his organization had shown the company was "particularly problematic" when it came to exposing workers to dangerous pesticides, so the company's policy change will be significant.
He cautioned, however, that Ag-Mart, like other Florida growers, will still be using chemicals that carry health risks: "We still have to keep an eye on them."
Long insisted that his company uses all pesticides prudently. But he said he was ready to do more.
"Why not push further?" he said. The new measures are "just one step we're taking toward creating the safest work environment possible and creating the safest produce available."
Deal ensures lifetime of care for Carlitos
Ag-Mart to pay for limbless child's needs
Care for the son of pesticide-exposed field workers is expected to cost millions.
Thurs., April 17, 2008
By Christine Stapleton, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
It took 29 minutes for a judge to approve a settlement Wednesday that will provide a lifetime of care for 3-year-old Carlitos Candelario, born without arms and legs to parents who picked tomatoes in fields sprayed with pesticides.
The amount of money that Ag-Mart, the Plant City-based grower in whose fields the parents worked, agreed to pay is confidential. The parents' attorney, Andrew Yaffa, has said that Carlitos' lifetime care will cost millions.
"The settlement will take care of his every need for the rest of his life," he said.
Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Charlene Honeywell sealed details of the settlement to protect the family from fellow pickers who may try to take advantage of them.
"The amounts are significant," Yaffa said. "For these amounts to be made public puts this child at risk, especially in this community."
Ag-Mart's lawyer, Keith Wickenden, agreed: "It's not the nicest community."
Francisca Herrera, the boy's mother, said, "Oh, yes," when asked by a court interpreter whether she believed the settlement would be enough to care for Carlitos for the rest of his life.
Herrera and the boy's father, Abraham Candelario, filed a lawsuit in 2006 against Ag-Mart, grower of SantaSweet and Ugly Ripe tomatoes, alleging that the pesticides used while Herrera worked in the company's fields during her pregnancy caused their son's birth defects.
The lawsuit claimed that at least three of the chemicals used in the fields were mutagenic, meaning that they caused deformities in lab animals at high doses. Investigations by health officials in Florida and North Carolina did not connect the birth defects to the pesticides.
Last month Ag-Mart agreed to settle the lawsuit after an expert said in a deposition that Carlitos' mother was "heavily exposed" to a "witch's brew" of pesticides during the first trimester of her pregnancy.
Carlitos fussed briefly in court Wednesday but quickly fell asleep on his mother's shoulder while photographers snapped his picture.
Asked what they intended to do first for their son, the boy's father answered: "Care for him. Before, we weren't able to afford that."
Carlitos has outgrown a brace that allows him to sit up, and he needs a wheelchair. The Shriner's Children's Hospital in Tampa and Miami Children's Hospital have agreed to provide care for Carlitos until he is 18.
For now, Carlitos will continue going to day care at the Redlands Christian Migrant Association in Immokalee. There, he aims a small thumb-like bud where his left arm should be at his classmates, who fall over and play dead, Yaffa said.
Doctors hope a prosthesis can eventually be fitted to the small bud. What Medicaid does not cover, a trust established as part of the settlement will pay. An annuity also has been established to provide income over his lifetime, Yaffa said.
Wickenden, Ag-Mart's attorney, left court quietly and quickly after the hearing. No other representatives from Ag-Mart came to court.
Although the settlement ends this lawsuit, Ag-Mart's legal problems are not over. The company's insurance carrier, Ohio Casualty Insurance Co., has filed court papers saying it should not have to pay on Ag-Mart's $20 million policy because it does not cover settlements involving pollutants.
The case first made headlines when The Palm Beach Post reported in 2005 that Carlitos was one of three children born within seven weeks, all with birth defects, all of whose parents lived in Immokalee and had picked tomatoes for Ag-Mart.
Carlitos' mother said in her deposition that pesticides spayed on adjacent fields often drifted and reached her. She also said she was forced to work in freshly sprayed fields, that her hands absorbed the wet chemicals and that she suffered a sore throat, burning eyes and headaches. Other former employees backed her claims.
In response to news reports, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services investigated the company's practices and found 88 violations. Officials proposed a fine of $111,200. A Florida administrative law judge overturned most of the violations and lowered the fine to $8,500.
Additional coverage by The Post found lax enforcement, few inspectors in the fields and few fines for pesticide violations.
In response to the case, agriculture officials have added about 10 inspectors and approximately doubled inspections.
Ag-Mart voluntarily agreed to discontinue using five products connected to developmental problems in lab animals.
That is an accomplishment that brought the usually shy Herrera to the edge of her seat, eager to talk about what happens in the fields.
"There are many more with problems out there," she said. "But they are afraid to come forward."
Yaffa, who declined to say whether any more lawsuits would be filed, agreed.
"This child's birth stands for a whole lot more than a child born without arms and legs," Yaffa said. "This child has changed the system."