PALM BEACH POST

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Collier health department investigates 3 cases involving birth defects

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

The Collier County Health Department has begun an investigation into the case of three children born with birth defects in a seven-week period in the farmworker town of Immokalee.

All three couples involved say that during the early stages of pregnancy they worked for the same company in the same tomato field near the town. They have requested an investigation into the possibility that the birth defects were caused by agricultural pesticides.

Deb Millsap, spokeswoman for the health department, said investigators already had accessed files from the Marion E. Fether Medical Center, a private, nonprofit clinic in Immokalee where all three mothers say they went for some prenatal care.

"We have started reviewing medical histories and are looking for possible cause and risk factors related to the birth defects," Millsap said.

She listed pesticides as one of those possible risk factors, along with genetics, drug intake during pregnancy, smoking and exposure to other chemicals earlier in the parents' lives.

Millsap said the department will report back to Department of Health officials in Tallahassee. She said if pesticides are found to be a possible cause of the deformities, the county department also will report that suspicion to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which is charged with investigating such cases and enforcing federal pesticide regulations.

The company that employed the couples, Ag-Mart of Plant City, which markets tomatoes under the name Santa Sweets, said it also is investigating.