BASAVILBASO, Argentina -- Argentine farmworker Fabian Tomasi was never trained to handle pesticides. His job was to keep the crop-dusters flying by filling their tanks as quickly as possible, although it often meant getting drenched in poison.
Now, at 47, he's a living skeleton, so weak he can hardly swallow or go to the bathroom on his own.
Schoolteacher Andrea Druetta lives in Santa Fe Province, the heart of Argentina's soy country, where agrochemical spraying is banned within 500 meters (550 yards) of populated areas. But soy is planted just 30 meters (33 yards) from her back door. Her boys were showered in chemicals recently while swimming in the backyard pool.
After Sofia Gatica lost her newborn to kidney failure, she filed a complaint that led to Argentina's first criminal convictions for illegal spraying. But last year's verdict came too late for many of her 5,300 neighbors in Ituzaingo Annex. A government study there found alarming levels of agrochemical contamination in the soil and drinking water, and 80 percent of the children surveyed carried traces of pesticide in their blood.
American biotechnology has turned Argentina into the world's third-largest soybean producer, but the chemicals powering the boom aren't confined to soy and cotton and corn fields.
The Associated Press documented dozens of cases around the country where poisons are applied in ways unanticipated by regulatory science or specifically banned by existing law. The spray drifts into schools and homes and settles over water sources; farmworkers mix poisons with no protective gear; villagers store water in pesticide containers that should have been destroyed.
Now doctors are warning that uncontrolled pesticide applications 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, cancer rates are two times to four times higher than the national average. In Chaco, birth defects quadrupled in the decade after biotechnology dramatically expanded farming in Argentina.
"The change in how agriculture is produced has brought, frankly, a change in the profile of diseases," says Dr. Medardo Avila Vazquez, a pediatrician and neonatologist who co-founded Doctors of Fumigated Towns, part of a growing movement demanding enforcement of agricultural safety rules. "We've gone from a pretty healthy population to one with a high rate of cancer, birth defects, and illnesses seldom seen before."
A nation once known for its grass-fed beef has undergone a remarkable transformation since 1996, when the St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. promised that adopting its patented seeds and chemicals would increase crop yields and lower pesticide use. Today, Argentina's entire soy crop and nearly all its corn and cotton are genetically modified, with soy cultivation alone tripling to 47 million acres (19 million hectares).
Agrochemical use did decline at first, then it bounced back, increasing ninefold from 9 million gallons (34 million liters) in 1990 to more than 84 million gallons (317 million liters) today as farmers squeezed in more harvests and pests became resistant to the poisons. 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.
Glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's popular Roundup brand of pesticides, is one of the world's most widely used weed killers. It has been determined to be safe, if applied properly, by many regulatory agencies, including those of the United States and European Union.
On May 1, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency even raised the allowable levels of glyphosate residues in food, concluding that based on studies presented by Monsanto, "there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result to the general population or to infants and children from aggregate exposure."
Argentina's 23 provinces take the lead in regulating farming, and rules vary.
Spraying is banned within 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) of populated areas in some provinces and as little as 50 meters (55 yards) in others. About one-third of the provinces set no limits at all, and most lack detailed enforcement policies.
A federal environmental law requires applicators of toxic chemicals to suspend or cancel 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.
Government officials insist the problem is not a lack of research, but misinformation that plays on people's emotions.
"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," Agriculture Secretary Lorenzo Basso said. "I think we have to publicize the commitment that Argentina has to being a food producer. 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.