By Reid Maki, NCL staff
As you bite into that juicy piece of fruit, you might want to think about the hidden cost of inexpensive American produce: the extensive use of chemical pesticides, some of which cause grievous harm to the workers who pick the fruit.
The potential dangers of pesticides were highlighted on March 24, when Ag-Mart, a Florida-based produce company, announced it was settling a civil suit brought by the parents of Carlos (“Carlitos”) Candelario Herrera, who was born in December 2004 without arms and legs.
Carlitos was one of three children born with major birth defects in a six-week period in 2005-2006 to farmworker parents who lived in Immokalee, Florida and who worked for Ag-mart in Florida and North Carolina. According to reports in the Palm Beach Post, Carlitos’ mother, Francisca Herrera, worked in Ag-Mart fields when she was 19 and pregnant with the boy. In court depositions, Herrera said that she and other workers were exposed to pesticides repeatedly when chemicals drifted from adjacent fields. Herrera also worked in fields were pesticides had been recently applied. According to Post reporters John Lantigua and Christine Stapleton, the Herreras’ complaint asserted that “at least three of the chemicals used were mutagenic, which means they had caused deformities in lab animals during testing.”
Although major birth defects like those suffered by Carlitos are thought to be rare in the farmworker community, advocates worry about the frequent use of chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic. Scientific studies have suggested that children with their smaller body weight and developing neurological and endocrine systems are more vulnerable to pesticides than adults. That’s just one of the reasons that the National Consumers League, through its leadership role in the Child Labor Coalition, is fighting to change child labor laws to close loopholes that allow kids in agriculture to work at younger ages and for longer hours than kids in other industries. We are working closely with Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) in support of the CARE Act (the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment), her legislative remedy to end the discrimination against the children of farmworkers. If a 12-year-old is not allowed to work for wages in an air-conditioned office, why should he or she be allowed to work in 100-degree heat in pesticide treated fields? (Our proposed legislative changes would not impact family farms where children work for their parents.)
Terms of the settlement between Ag-Mart and the Herrera family were not disclosed, but published reports speculated that millions of dollars will go toward the care of Carlitos. Ag-Mark has stopped using the three pesticides that health experts feared caused the mutations.
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