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
Over the course of two decades, Lee says she worked on eight different farms in the Apopka area. Though it was not an easy job, she was able to make an honest living at it, just as thousands of other residents of Apopka did during the picking seasons.
But in 1989, when she was only in her 30s, Lee started feeling ill: Her body ached, and she was often exhausted. She complained of soreness with every move and had difficulty getting around. When she took a bad spill in her driveway, she thought she'd better see a doctor. The owner of the farm she was working on agreed to foot the bill for the visit and chose a physician for her to see; that doctor blamed Lee's health problems on the fact that she was overweight and suggested that she could also, perhaps, have the flu.
"I was pretty sure that this couldn't be the reason why I was feeling like this," says Lee, who is now 58. But she didn't have the money for extensive medical testing, so she put up with it. The pain persisted, and it soon became obvious to Lee that the illness wasn't going to go away on its own, so she decided to see a new doctor - one that wasn't paid by her employer. The new doctor diagnosed her with lupus, an autoimmune disease that attacks the skin, joints and organs.
The disease is something of an enigma to the medical world. As an ailment, it affects so many body systems and its symptoms mimic so many other illnesses that it often goes undiagnosed. As a result, it's difficult to nail down figures to determine how many people actually have the disease.
But in Apopka, people close to the farm-worker community say an inordinate number of people who've worked on the muck farms picking vegetables seem to have it. Lee and others suspect it's somehow tied to the fact that nearly everyone who worked on muck farms in Apopka was regularly exposed to toxic chemicals sprayed on crops.
"There are a lot of people with lupus in our area," Lee says, estimating that about half the people she knows seem to have it - or, if they don't actually know they have it, she says, they have worrisome symptoms that make them think they could have it. "A lot of ladies that I know got similar things to what I have. They always ask me what it feels like to have lupus."
Geraldean Matthew knows that she has it. Matthew picked vegetables on muck farms for 30 years before she got sick from lupus in the 1990s and eventually had to quit. She says she remembers working in the fields while crop dusters flew overhead, dusting everything - including the people - with strong chemicals that you could smell on your skin at the end of the work day.
Matthew, 61, has two daughters who often accompanied her in the fields when they were children. Both of them have been diagnosed with lupus, too. One of her daughters discovered she had the illness when she was pregnant.
> Email Christopher Balogh