Birth Defects Plague Tiny California Town

"We carried photos of the babies," Romero said of their visits to the county. "They didn't pay us any attention."

Mothers Devastated by Children's Deaths, Worry About Future Births

Romero's daughter America died in February 2008, less than five months after she was born with a cleft palate, facial deformities, Down syndrome and heart problems. Ten months later, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

"I was very afraid. I didn't want another baby," she told "I was thinking of not having another."

Mares-Alatorre said giving birth to a deformed baby is a heartbreaking event. Emmanuel, she said, was born with a cleft palate and his nose was split down the middle. He's also missing a portion of his left brain, which causes problems on his right side.

"He has issues with balance and he shakes. He has a lot of accidents. He falls a lot," Mares-Alatorre said. "Every time I see him, he has new bruises on his face."

After he was born, his parents were questioned about whether cleft palates ran in their family. They didn't.

"They asked her if she lived near pesticides," Mares-Alatorre said. "They are a really clean-living couple. They work out, they don't drink, they don't smoke. They really wanted answers."

Maura Alatorre stays home to care for her children, and her husband works as a farm laborer. They drive Emmanuel, who has already had a couple of surgeries to correct his facial deformities, more than an hour away for therapy and appointments with specialists.

Alatorre, who is 26 and has a healthy older daughter along with Emmanuel, said she is not planning to have any more children.

"It makes me afraid, because I don't know what will happen," she said. "Thank God my children are alive, but truly, I don't want to have this happen again."

It's a fear that has gripped many of the women in the town.

Lizbeth Canales said she would like to have another child, but is still reeling from the death of her unborn daughter, Maria Guadalupe. Canales' daughter was the seventh baby known to have defects.

She has only recently begun sharing her story, speaking out for the first time publicly last week when the EPA visited with the mothers.

"My mom was the one who encouraged me to go the meetings. She said, 'You know, we still live here,'" she said. "We don't want them to go through what I did."

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Canales, also mother to a healthy 4-year-old boy, was six months pregnant when her doctor failed to detect a fetal heartbeat. She was sent home and told to expect contractions to expel the fetus. Instead she was gripped by searing pain and rushed to the emergency room, vomiting blood.

Waking up in the intensive care unit, she was told her appendix had burst and infection had spread throughout her body. When she asked about the baby, the nurse's response shocked her.

The unborn girl, who she had planned to name Maria, was badly deformed. "Both of her feet was going to be clubbed and one of her hands. She had heart problems and her head was not fully developed."

Romero, she said, was by her side constantly, having lost her daughter the previous year.

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