Infant has no limbs; parents blame pesticides
BY CHARLES RABIN
Little Carlitos lights up a room. His wide dark eyes shine. He giggles. He gurgles. He seems happy.
But Carlitos will never be able to tie his shoelaces or toss a football. That's because he's missing every limb -- the result of his mother's exposure to several dangerous pesticides during her pregnancy, the family claims.
On Monday, Francisca Herrera and her boyfriend, Abraham Candelario of Homestead, filed a civil suit in Hillsborough County alleging that Plant City produce giant Ag-Mart Produce negligently used at least six types of powerful pesticides that Herrera passed on to Carlos Herrera-Candelario, their 14-month-old child they affectionately call Carlitos.
The company operates thousands of acres of farmland in Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey and New Mexico, primarily to produce canned fruits and vegetables.
''[Ag-Mart] has chosen profits over the safety of its employees,'' said the family's Miami attorney, Andrew Yaffa.
In a prepared statement, Ag-Mart President Don Long said he was ''deeply saddened'' about Carlitos, but maintained that his company has cooperated with the state's Department of Agriculture and with Collier County.
He said both government agencies conducted ''exhaustive and thorough'' independent investigations and found no link between pesticides and birth defects.
Yaffa charges that Ag-Mart used high levels of pesticides, including OxiDate and methyl bromide, which caused Carlitos' defects. He also claims that state agricultural officials are so taxed that they can't possibly regulate the industry properly.
''It's going to take an enormous amount of money to take care of this child for the rest of his life,'' Yaffa said.
The state's Department of Agriculture did not respond to phone calls Tuesday.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of an investigation last year by state officials in Florida and North Carolina into possible links between pesticides and birth defects. The investigation was spurred by a story in The Palm Beach Post about three babies with birth defects who were born to Ag-Mart field workers.
In Florida, no link was found; North Carolina has not completed its investigation. Ag-Mart was fined in Florida and North Carolina for pesticide violations. Florida officials found 88 violations and fined the company $111,200; North Carolina regulators found 369 violations and fined Ag-Mart $184,500.
The fines, announced in December, prompted Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, to stop selling Santa Sweets grape tomatoes, an Ag-Mar product.
The lawsuit was filed in Hillsborough County, Ag-Mart's headquarters. The couple now live in Homestead.
On Wednesday, Carlitos and his family appeared at a news conference at the attorney's Coconut Grove office.
Carlitos, wearing a yellow shirt and a white and blue diaper, took a seat, balancing himself on his mother's right thigh.
Herrera and Candelario, who come from Mexico, speak little Spanish and no English, favoring an indigenous dialect.
WORK IN TWO STATES
The couple explained that they worked in North Carolina in the spring and summer of 2004 during the first seven months of Herrera's pregnancy. Two months before Carlitos' birth, they moved to Immokalee, where they continued to work for Ag-Mart, and where Carlitos was born.
The couple were unaware of Carlitos' deformities until his birth. They were told, said Yaffa, only that the boy had a problem with one of his feet. It wasn't until after the child's birth that Herrera learned of the deformities.
''They asked me if I worked in the fields,'' she said. ``And I said