US: Ag-Mart influence alleged

Researchers say the company had a hand in a state report on pesticide exposure

A state report on pesticides and birth defects might have been influenced by the company that was its focus, some researchers who worked on the report say.

Ag-Mart, a Florida company that grows tomatoes in Eastern North Carolina, had a meeting with state health officials in April, near the end of the report's drafting.

Two state employees who worked on the report expressed concerns about the meeting in e-mail messages with their supervisors at the Department of Health and Human Services' public health division.

The report, released in late May, said that improper exposure to pesticides might have caused severe birth defects in three babies born to Ag-Mart workers. But it did not make a definitive link.

One of the children has no arms and legs, and another has a jaw deformity. The third had no nose or visible sex organs and later died.

State health officials investigated the cause of the birth defects at the request of the state Agriculture Department, which has charged Ag-Mart with 369 violations of state pesticide law. Ag-Mart denies the state's claims that it illegally exposed its employees to harmful pesticides and is negotiating the payment of fines.

In April, nearly eight months after work on the health report began, Ag-Mart officials requested a meeting to present their case. They said their employees were not improperly exposed to pesticides and records that made it appear that way were imprecise. Steve Cline, a section chief in the public health division, asked five employees working on the report to attend, according to e-mail messages.

"We typically hear industry out," said Dr. Leah Devlin, the state's health director and Cline's boss, last week. "We hear all sides. ... We are public servants, and we meet with people when they request that."

But Ag-Mart's request sparked concern among some of those working on the report.

"Having an outside party attempt to influence our results at this stage of the assessment is troublesome and not appropriate," state toxicologist Ken Rudo wrote in an e-mail message before the Ag-Mart meeting.

Sheila Higgins, one of the report's two main authors, wrote that she was "uncomfortable" attending without the department's lawyer present. Higgins wrote that the meeting "could be an opportunity for [Ag-Mart's] attorneys to put something on the record that we don't want there."

Higgins was on vacation last week and could not be reached.

A department lawyer did attend the meeting. And some of those involved said the meeting had no improper influence on the report.

"I would not have put my name on that report if I felt like we changed it to satisfy Ag-Mart's requests," said Dr. Ann Chelminski, who co-wrote the report with Higgins. Chelminski was a state epidemiologist when she wrote the report but has since left the department to practice medicine in a clinic.

Chelminski said two changes happened after the Ag-Mart meeting. She added a summary of Ag-Mart's defense, and she changed all mentions of the women's exposure to pesticides to say "possible exposure."

She said both changes were fair and that the wording about the exposures likely would have been changed anyway because she had no way to prove the women's exposure.

Rudo did not attend the meeting. But he said the report was unnecessarily weakened after the meeting.

"We have notices of violation" from the state Agriculture Department, Rudo said last week. "You had reports from workers that they were in the fields when they were being sprayed. They weren't wearing protective clothing. We know they were exposed."

Rudo pushed Chelminski and his supervisors for stronger language throughout the report, e-mail messages show. In the end, the report said the women might have been exposed to chemicals that have caused birth defects in lab animals. It said that, in the case of the boy with no arms and legs, there was a "plausible association" between pesticides and his birth defects. In the other two cases, it was less definitive.

Ag-Mart calls the report proof that the company cannot be blamed for the children's defects, while the women's lawyer, Andrew Yaffa, says it is the best proof yet that Ag-Mart is responsible.

E-mail messages from the department also show that employees of the Governor's Office attended meetings and reviewed drafts of the report.

Alan Hirsch, the governor's policy director, said it is standard for his staff to keep on top of important issues in state departments. He said the Governor's Office did not request changes in the report.

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