Apopka farmworkers say pesticide exposure caused illnesses
Former workers and activists trying to draw attention to health problems in the community
Published: June 2, 2011
At the end of the fishing dock that rests on the south end of Lake Apopka, a man leans against a wooden railing and stares at the broad expanse of water before him.
"I have been here for over 60 years," says the man, an auto mechanic whose name, Lend, is sewn onto his work shirt. "I went to all the fishing camps when I was a little boy. This lake was filled with fisherman, in and around it."
"Look at it now - not a soul. It looks like pea soup," he says.
That's because, despite environmental restoration efforts in place for more than a decade, the lake - Florida's fourth largest - is still seriously polluted. For more than 40 years beginning in the 1940s, runoff from acres of so-called muck farms - vegetable farms that sprung up in marshlands around the lake that were drained so farmers could access their rich, black soil - that used to line the lake's shores washed chemicals and nutrients into the waters.
The pollution got so bad that by the mid-1990s, when the state bought up 15,000 acres of farmland around it, Lake Apopka was known as the most polluted lake in the state. Game fish populations in Lake Apopka, once known for its trophy-sized bass and fish camps, had declined significantly. In 1999, sudden large-scale bird deaths were reported around the lake, which caused an investigation by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife (which eventually determined that levels of pesticides in the environment were to blame). Alligators living in the lake were found to have reproductive abnormalities and growth defects.
The health of Lake Apopka's wildlife and water have long drawn the attention of research scientists, environmentalists and citizen activists who've gone to great pains to restore the ecosystems in and around the lake.
But the ecosystem, Apopka residents say, wasn't the only thing affected by the pollution. Hundreds of farmworkers who earned their livelihoods picking and packing vegetables on those muck farms came into regular contact with toxic pesticides as well. For more than a decade, they've been trying to get someone to take their claims of health problems related to pesticide exposure seriously. Though the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency and others have been more than happy to study gators and birds, few have invested time or money in studying the impact of the chemicals on people.
More than 20 years ago, Linda Lee spent her days cutting vegetables in the black dirt of the farm fields around Lake Apopka and packaging them for distribution to market.
Working on the vegetable farms was a way of life for Lee's family, and she remembers spending time playing in the fields as a child while the adults labored. When she was old enough, she got her first job in the same fields where her mother worked.
Picking vegetables in the hot sun was backbreaking work - from sunrise to sunset, Lee stood alongside other farmworkers stooped at the waist, picking cauliflower, tomatoes, cabbage and corn and packing the produce into crates.
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