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
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.
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