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Argentines with cancer, birth defects worry haphazard agrochemical use could be killing them

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    In this Sept. 24, 2013, photo, a tractor used for spraying agrochemicals is reflected in a car's side view mirror on a road in Parana, in Entre Rios province, Argentina. Glyphosate represents two-thirds of all agrochemicals used in Argentina, but resistance to pesticides is forcing farmers to mix in other poisons such as 2,4,D, which the U.S. military used in "Agent Orange" to defoliate jungles during the Vietnam War. (AP Photo/Natcha Pisarenko) (The Associated Press)

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    In this May 3, 2013, photo, students stand outside their rural school in Pozo del Toba, in Santiago del Estero province, Argentina. Most Argentine provinces limit how close spraying can be done in populated areas, with setbacks ranging from as little as 50 meters to as much as several kilometers. But The Associated Press found many cases of soybeans planted only a few feet from homes and schools, and chemicals mixed and loaded onto tractors inside residential neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko) (The Associated Press)

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    In this April 1, 2013 photo, Aixa Cano, 5, who has hairy moles all over her body that doctors can't explain, sits on a stoop outside her home in Avia Terai, in Chaco province, Argentina. Although it’s nearly impossible to prove, doctors say Aixa’s birth defect may be linked to agrochemicals. In Chaco, children are four times more likely to be born with devastating birth defects since biotechnology dramatically expanded farming in Argentina. Chemicals routinely contaminate homes, classrooms and drinking water. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko) (The Associated Press)

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    In this April 16, 2013, photo, Felix San Roman walks on his property in Rawson, in Buenos Aires province, Argentina. San Roman says that when he complained about clouds of chemicals drifting into his yard, the sprayers beat him up, fracturing his spine and knocking out his teeth. "This is a small town where nobody confronts anyone, and the authorities look the other way," San Roman said. "All I want is for them to follow the existing law, which says you can’t do this within 1,500 meters. Nobody follows this. How can you control it?" (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko) (The Associated Press)

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    In this April 16, 2013 photo, soybeans ready for harvest are bathed in afternoon light near Rawson, in Buenos Aires province, Argentina. 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. They routinely contaminate homes and classrooms and drinking water. A growing chorus of doctors and scientists is warning that their uncontrolled use could be responsible for the increasing number of health problems turning up in hospitals across the South American nation. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko) (The Associated Press)

Argentina's agricultural industry has been dramatically transformed by the introduction of genetically modified plants in 1996.

A country once known for its grass-fed beef is now dominated by soy, corn and cotton. Soy harvests alone have tripled, ranking Argentina as the world's third largest soybean producer.

But the pesticides powering this boom are poorly controlled and used in ways that were never anticipated by regulatory science, if not specifically banned by law.

Doctors and scientist worry the chemicals may be the cause of rising cancer rates, birth defects and other health problems.

Aixa Cano, a shy 5-year-old who lives in Chaco, Argentina's poorest province, was born with hairy moles all over her body. Her mother believes the skin condition was caused by contaminated water.

Fabian Tomasi, 47, never wore any protective gear in the years he spent pumping poisons into crop-dusting planes. Today, he is near death from polyneuropathy, a neurological disorder that has left him emaciated.

The Monsanto Co., one of several agricultural companies that sell pesticides in Argentina, says it is working with government officials and farmers to promote better pesticide practices.

But an Associated Press investigation found that Argentine farmers now use more than twice as much pesticide per acre as U.S. farmers do, making Argentina a laboratory for what can go wrong with biotech farming.

Pesticides are applied in windy conditions, drifting into homes and schools and contaminating drinking water. Farm workers mix chemicals without supervision, in populated areas and with no protective gear. People store water in used pesticide containers that are resold rather than destroyed, endangering their families' health.

Argentina's agriculture secretary dismisses a growing call for reform as an "emotional" response from people who misunderstand the impact of agrochemicals. "We have to defend our model," he said at an industry conference this year where he promised new guidelines for spraying the chemicals.

Doctors say new guidelines aren't enough. They want strong enforcement of spraying limits as well as field research into the correlation they see between the overuse of agrochemicals and health problems — some of which were seldom seen before the new farming model took off.