The Palm Beach (Florida)Â Post is reporting that Ag-Mart has settled a civil suitÂ filed by a migrant farmworkerÂ family who alleged their son’s serious birth defects were associated with the company’s improper handling of pesticides.Â Earlier reporting in March 2005 by the PB Post exposed theÂ workingÂ and living conditions of this familyÂ and other farmworkers, andÂ birth defects among some of their children.Â Â
At the same time this settlement was reported, anotherÂ Florida newspaper wroteÂ that violations against Ag-Mart for failure to comply with the State’s pesticide use rules had nearly all been dropped by an administrative law judge.Â Oddly, these violations (e.g., failing to provide protectiveÂ equipment for employees working with pesticides,Â allowing workers to harvest crops too soon after chemicals were sprayed, burning pesticide containers) all seem like the type of practices that might have contributed to the workers’ exposure and possible link with the infants’ malformations.Â This development, coupled with the fact that theÂ Ag-Mart case settlement is protected by a confidentiality agreement, creates serious obstacles forÂ public health prevention.
InÂ fall 2004, the Project on Scientific Knowledge andÂ Public Policy (SKAPP) sponsoredÂ a symposium entitled “Sequestered Science:Â the Consequences of Undisclosed Knowledge.”Â Our objective was toÂ explore the competing values and interests in bothÂ science and the lawÂ ofÂ knowledge disclosure.Â As Givelber and Robbins noted in their paper:
“Public health practice—the prevention of disease and injury and the protection of the population—relies on access to information.Â Legal practice treats information very differently; it is a weapon; has power and value, and it is rarely yielded without getting something in return.”
“Civil litigation uncovers a great deal of otherwise unavailable information about practices and products which may cause disease and injury.Â However, common practices in and related to lawsuits, trails, and courts, such as protective orders, sealing orders and confidential settlments, can deprive public health authorities and the public itself of information that might be helpful to prevent disease, injury, disability, and death.”
The Ag-Mart case involvesÂ thisÂ precise issue: aÂ confidential settlement.Â Â I wonder what we might have learned about the types of pesticidesÂ used by the company, their chemical-application processes, and their worker-protection systems.Â AsÂ Givelber and Robbins note:
“Protective orders and secrecy agreements have shielded many patterns of injury andÂ disease associated with dozens of materials, products, and processes, such as pharmaceuticals, truck and automobile designs, child car seats, cigarette lighters, school lunch tables, and water slides.Â Three well-known examples illustrate the problem: asbestos, Dalkon Shield, andÂ Bridgestone/Firestone tires.”
We cannot say whether the products or practices identified in theÂ Ag-Mart case rise to theÂ same levelÂ as these examplesÂ exactly because we are notÂ privy to anyÂ details.Â SomeÂ documents, such as the monetary amountÂ that Ag-Mart agreed toÂ provide these parents, should remain confidential.Â Â (The parents’Â attorney says:Â “any care this child will require over the course of his lifetime will be provided by the settlement of this case” whichÂ will alleviate a hugeÂ emotional and economic burden for them.)Â Â Â To the extent, however,Â that information gathered in the course of the litigation exposed information which might prevent future harm to public health or safety, it should not be “sealed” from public access.Â As the PB Post articles remind us, other children of workers employed at Ag-Mart field were also born with birth defects.Â Why doesn’t the knowledge-generation exercise from the first case freely inform us about other potential cases of harm?
During our preparation for the “Sequenced Science”Â symposium, we learned of the rule adopted by the U.S. DistrictÂ Court for the district of South Carolina, whichÂ says:
“No document (including court orders) may be sealed in this district if the documents contain information concerning matters that have a probable adverse effect upon the general public health or safety, or the administration of public office, or the operation of government.”Â (An article by the chief judge here.)
For those interested inÂ health and safety issues of vulnerable populations such as the farmworkers,Â the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association will be hosting aÂ Health Disparities Institute at its annual meeting this year (October 25-29 in San Diego, California.)