Photograph by Marco Vernaschi
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Aixa Ponce Cano was born in the small town of Avia Terai in rural Argentina with tumors on her back and moles covering her body. Her mother, like most other people in Avia Terai, lives near soybean fields that are sprayed with pesticides.

Photograph by Marco Vernaschi

A Town Demands Protection from Pesticides

A powerful photograph changes a girl’s life and improves conditions in a rural farm town in Argentina. But problems persist.

Almost a year ago, National Geographic told the story of Aixa, now eight years old, who lives in Avia Terai, a town in Argentina surrounded by soybeans and other crops treated with pesticides. Included was a photograph by Marco Vernaschi that showed tumors and blotches covering Aixa’s face and body.

The dramatic photograph brought attention to the problems of Avia Terai, giving its residents the courage to speak out about their concerns. Now conditions have improved in the town. Residents have sought advance notice of aerial pesticide spraying and are lodging complaints. Farm workers are demanding better on-the-job protections, says Alejandra Gomez, a lawyer and co-founder of Red Salud, a volunteer network of doctors, lawyers, and scientists. And authorities have taken some action, so pesticides are no longer sprayed in Aixa’s neighborhood or close to schools on weekdays.

But while some things have changed for the better for Aixa and others living in Avia Terai, pesticide use has not stopped altogether, so worries continue. The community also is without running water, which exacerbates the health concerns.

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In Avia Terai, children play in fields and water pools that are contaminated with agrochemicals.

What Avia Terai has been dealing with is not an isolated problem for those living and working in Argentina’s agricultural regions, where pesticides are used extensively. Argentina grows more soybeans than any other country except the United States and Brazil. It also is the world’s third largest grower of genetically engineered crops, primarily soybeans engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate. This engineering allows farms to spray the herbicide to kill weeds without damaging their crops.

Near Cordoba, about 500 miles from Avia Terai but similar agriculturally, studies have found above-average rates of congenital birth defects, hypothyroidism, neurological problems, immune system disorders including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, fertility and pregnancy problems, and certain cancers.

Cause of Diseases Unknown 

Pinpointing the precise cause of Aixa’s non-malignant tumors—a severe case of a skin condition known as congenital melanocytic nevi that is present at birth—is virtually impossible. The same is true for the higher rates of other diseases in the communities. Causes other than pesticides may be involved.

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Claudia Sariski's family has no running water, so they collect it in plastic containers that had previously been filled with herbicides. Two of Claudia’s children suffer from respiratory diseases. Experts say it's possible that some health effects are linked to the chemicals, but there have been no studies in the town to examine potential links.

However, health experts say studies have shown connections between some of the chemicals used in the community and various diseases.

The herbicide atrazine has been linked to developmental and reproductive effects in animals; prenatal exposure to the neurotoxicant chlorpyrifos has been linked to cognitive and behavioral effects in children; and paraquat has been associated with Parkinson’s disease. Last year both glyphosate and 2,4-D were classified as carcinogens by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. Their manufacturers dispute the finding.

“There’s so much we don’t know. But is there plausibility that these exposures could lead to birth defects? It’s quite plausible,” says Leo Trasande, New York University School of Medicine associate professor of pediatrics and environmental medicine.

Because so many pesticides are used in Argentina’s farm towns, the challenges of understanding what may be causing the health problems are considerable, says Nicolas Loyacono, a University of Buenos Aires environmental health scientist and physician.

In these communities, Loyacono says, “we are breathing, eating, and drinking agrichemicals.”

The most common route of exposure is likely drift into neighborhoods when chemicals are sprayed from airplanes. But there are other ways people are exposed. For example, because Avia Terai has been without running water for several years, some residents collect rainwater when it runs off their roofs using old pesticide containers, says Gomez.

Vernaschi, who has spent a lot of time in the community, describes open dumps where old agrichemicals tanks are tossed. These, he says, are collected and reused without even being rinsed. Residents “put water in these tanks–the water they drink and use for washing and bathing,” says Vernaschi, who established a non-profit dedicated to small-scale family farming, rural development, and biodiversity conservation.

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Avia Terai’s main well is in the middle of a soybean field and is exposed to pesticides. Some people have started to dig their own wells near their houses, with the hope of having control over their own water.

Polluted Water, Too

Aixa’s mother, Silvia, describes the water in her neighborhood’s single well as “dirty and polluted.” The water, she says, “is not sufficient in quantity or quality.” She says people in the community, “especially children, are suffering from diarrhea and vomiting,” that may be related to contaminated water.

“They have no other option so they drink this water and they are sick,” she says. “It’s impossible to live in these conditions especially for children and old people.”

“I really want people to be aware of what’s happening here,” she adds.

In addition, without running water, residents of Avia Terai may not be able to adequately wash after being in the fields or properly clean contaminated clothing and equipment.

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The Roa family poses in the courtyard of their house in Avia Terai. Ten-year-old Alina Laura Roa (center) suffers from hypothyroidism and neurological problems. No health studies have been conducted in the town to look for potential causes.

When serious health problem arise in these rural towns, people typically travel to big cities like Buenos Aires for medical care. This, Loyacono says, makes it hard to track disease patterns, which is essential to connecting environmental exposures to any potential health effects.

Vernaschi’s photograph of Aixa prompted a celebrity, who wishes to remain anonymous, to make a donation that enabled Aixa to undergo surgery to remove some of her tumors. Yet her mother worries that they will return. 

Aixa is not the only child in Avia Terai suffering from this severe skin condition, Vernaschi says. Three other children, unrelated to Aixa, have extreme cases of it, he says.

“Before the media coverage started” people in Avia Terai “were very afraid to protest,” says Vernaschi. These are poor communities that historically have been intimidated by those in power. Now, he says, they “understand they are not alone.”

Asked about the local concerns, Monsanto, which manufactures glyphosate and engineered seed, said in a statement that “we have great sympathy for anyone suffering from an illness; however, we disagree with statements linking our products to these.” The company also explained that “Monsanto employees around the world work hard to ensure that our customers and suppliers are properly trained and use the products according to label instructions.”

“All our herbicides on the market meet the rigorous standards set by regulatory and health authorities to protect human health,” the company says. Its product labels “undergo thorough review by government agencies and are approved as accurate for use” and “additionally, before any of our products are used, these agencies go through very rigorous regulatory procedures in Argentina.”