BASAVILBASO, Argentina — Argentine farmworker Fabian Tomasi wasn't trained to use protective gear as he pumped pesticides into crop dusters. Now at 47, he's a living skeleton.
Schoolteacher Andrea Druetta lives in a town where it's illegal to spray agrochemicals within 500 meters (550 yards) of homes, and yet soy is planted just 30 meters (33 yards) from her back door. Recently, her boys were showered in chemicals while swimming in their backyard pool.
Sofia Gatica's search for answers after losing her newborn to kidney failure led to Argentina's first criminal convictions for illegal spraying last year. But 80 percent of her neighbors' children surveyed carry pesticides in their blood.
American biotechnology has turned Argentina into the world's third-largest soy producer, but the chemicals powering the boom aren't confined to soy and cotton and corn fields. The Associated Press documented dozens of cases where these poisons are used in ways specifically banned by existing law.
Now doctors are warning that uncontrolled pesticide use could be the cause of growing health problems among the 12 million people who live in the South American nation's vast farm belt.
In Santa Fe province, the heart of Argentina's soy industry, cancer rates are two times to four times higher than the national average. In Chaco, the nation's poorest province, children became four times more likely to be born with devastating birth defects in the decade since biotechnology dramatically expanded industrial agriculture.
"The change in how agriculture is produced has brought, frankly, a change in the profile of diseases," says Dr. Medardo Avila Vazquez, a pediatrician who co-founded Doctors of Fumigated Towns. "We've gone from a pretty healthy population to one with a high rate of cancer, birth defects, and illnesses seldom seen before."
Once known for its grass-fed beef, Argentina has undergone a remarkable transformation since 1996, when the St. Louis-based Monsanto Company marketed a promising new model of higher crop yields and fewer pesticides through its patented seeds and chemicals.
Today, all of Argentina's soy and nearly all its corn, wheat and cotton are genetically modified. Soy farming tripled to 47 million acres (19 million hectares), and just like in the U.S., cattle are now fattened in feedlots on corn and soy.
But as weeds and insects became resistant, farmers increased the chemical burden eightfold, from 9 million gallons (34 million liters) in 1990 to more than 84 million gallons (317 million liters) today. Overall, Argentine farmers apply an estimated 4.3 pounds of agrochemical concentrate per acre, more than twice what U.S. farmers use, according to an AP analysis of government and pesticide industry data.
Monsanto's "Roundup" pesticides use glyphosate, one of the world's most widely applied and least toxic weed killers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and many others have declared it to be safe if applied properly. In May, the EPA even increased allowable glyphosate residues on foods.
Despite the wholesale adoption of Monsanto's model, safety rules vary.
Some of Argentina's 23 provinces ban spraying within 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) of populated areas; others say farmers can spray as close as 50 meters (55 yards). About one-third set no limits, and rule-breakers are very rarely punished.
A federal law requires toxic chemical applicators to suspend activities that threaten public health, "even when the link has not been scientifically proven," and "no matter the costs or consequences," but it has never been applied to farming, the Auditor General found last year.
In response to soaring complaints, President Cristina Fernandez ordered a commission in 2009 to study the impact of agrochemical spraying on human health. Its initial report called for "systematic controls over concentrations of herbicides and their compounds ... such as exhaustive laboratory and field studies involving formulations containing glyphosate as well as its interactions with other agrochemicals as they are actually used in our country."
But the commission hasn't met since 2010, the auditor general found.
Agriculture Secretary Lorenzo Basso said people are being misinformed.
"I've seen countless documents, surveys, videos, articles in the news and in universities, and really our citizens who read all this end up dizzy and confused," he said. "Our model as an exporting nation has been called into question. We need to defend our model."
In a written statement, Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher said the company "does not condone the misuse of pesticides or the violation of any pesticide law, regulation, or court ruling."
"Monsanto takes the stewardship of products seriously and we communicate regularly with our customers regarding proper use of our products," Helscher said.
Argentina was among the earliest adopters of the "no-till" method U.S. agribusinesses promoted. Instead of turning the topsoil, spraying pesticides, and then waiting until the poison dissipates before planting, farmers sow seeds and spray afterward without harming "Roundup Ready" crops genetically modified to tolerate specific poisons. Farmers can now harvest multiple crops each year on land that wasn't profitable before.
But pests quickly develop resistance to the same chemicals applied to identical crops on a vast scale, forcing farmers to mix in more toxic poisons, such as 2,4,D, used in "Agent Orange" to defoliate Vietnam's jungles. Some Argentine regulators called for labels warning that these mixtures should be limited to "farm areas far from homes and population centers," but they were ignored, the auditor found.
"Glyphosate is even less toxic than the repellent you put on your children's skin," said Pablo Vaquero, Monsanto's spokesman in Buenos Aires. "That said, there has to be a responsible and good use of these products, because in no way would you put repellent in the mouths of children and no environmental applicator should spray fields with a tractor or a crop-duster without taking into account the environmental conditions and threats that stem from the use of the product."
Out in the fields, Tomasi was routinely exposed.
"I prepared millions of liters of poison without any kind of protection, no gloves, masks or special clothing. I didn't know anything" he said.
Teachers in Entre Rios began to file police complaints this year. They said sprayers failed to respect 50-meter (55-yard) limits at 18 schools, dousing 11 during class.
In Santa Fe, Druetta also filed complaints, saying her students fainted when pesticides drifted into their classrooms and that her school lacks safe drinking water.
A house-to-house epidemiological study of 65,000 people in Santa Fe, led by Dr. Damian Verzenassi at the National University of Rosario, found cancer rates two times to four times higher than the national average, as well as thyroid disorders, respiratory illnesses and other afflictions seldom seen before.
"It could be linked to agrochemicals," Verzenassi said. "They do all sorts of analysis for toxicity of the first ingredient, but they have never studied the interactions between all the chemicals they're applying."
Hospital records show birth defects quadrupled in Chaco, from 19.1 per 10,000 to 85.3 per 10,000, in the decade after genetically modified crops were approved. A medical team then surveyed 2,051 people in six towns, finding more disease wherever people are surrounded by farms.
In the farming village of Avia Terai, 31 percent said a family member had cancer, compared with 3 percent in the ranching village of Charadai. They also documented children with malformed skulls, exposed spinal cords, blindness and deafness, neurological damage and strange skin problems.Comment on this story
It may be impossible to prove a specific chemical caused an individual's illness. But doctors increasingly are calling for broader, longer-term and more independent research, saying governments should make the industry prove that the accumulated agricultural burden isn't making people sick.
"That's why we do epidemiological studies for heart disease and smoking and all kinds of things," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a former EPA regulator now with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "If you have the weight of evidence pointing to serious health problems, you don't wait until there's absolute proof in order to do something."
Warren can be reached on Twitter at @mwarrenap