(Beyond Pesticides, September 11, 2008) The North Carolina Pesticide Board has begun hearing evidence in a case from 2004 over suspected pesticide violations that were investigated after three female Ag-Mart farmworkers gave birth to babies with severe birth defects. In 2006, the family of Carlos Herrera Candelario, who was born without arms or legs, sued Ag-Mart over illegal pesticide exposure resulting in the boy’s birth defects. The case was settled out of court, with Ag-Mart agreeing to pay the medical expenses of the boy for life and provide him with a permanent income, but insisting that the settlement was not an admission of guilt. The current hearing will look at whether Ag-Mart’s farm manager, Jeff Oxley, is indeed guilty of over 200 violations, including forcing workers into the field too soon after dangerous pesticides were applied.
The hearing is significant because the company insists that adequate practices are and have been in place to ensure workers are not exposed to pesticides, even though the testimony of Ag-Mart employees runs counter to this claim. This hearing could do a great deal to elucidate the truth about farmworker pesticide exposure, an important issue for the thousands of workers who plant and harvest our food and their families throughout the country. As detailed in the report Fields of Poison 2002, about California’s farmworkers, pesticide poisonings are drastically underreported and farmworkers and their families are the most at-risk group for exposure to a variety of toxic chemicals used in agriculture. More protections for farmworkers are necessary, and a case such as this has the potential to illuminate the severity of the issue.
In August, prompted by this case, North Carolina adopted a new law intended to protect workers from retaliation if they report pesticide violations. The new law also requires more detailed record keeping of pesticide applications. Ag-Mart claims that the charges against the company are a matter of the Pesticide Board’s misreading of their records. They have since stopped using five pesticides known to cause birth defects. This case has already brought about important changes in the law, but up until now, Ag-Mart has not been held accountable for what appear to be flagrant pesticide violations. This hearing could be an important step forward for farmworker protection and toward holding corporations accountable for their practices. Ultimately, however, in order to eliminate toxic pesticide exposure for farmworkers and consumers, toxic pesticides themselves must be eliminated.