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
"She was just sick, sick, sick," Matthew says. "She was trying to have a baby, and she had had several miscarriages."
For years, Lee and Matthew say, they saw friends, family and neighbors who worked in the fields stricken with serious illness. "Around us, people were dying of cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, lupus," Lee says. "It felt like it was funeral after funeral."
Though they have no proof, aside from anecdotal evidence (and, some might say, coincidence), both women believe the illnesses - including the ubiquitous lupus - can be traced back to exposure to the same deadly pesticides that have been proven to be injurious to wildlife.
And they aren't alone in that suspicion. Jeannie Economos, pesticide health and safety coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida, which is based in Apopka, says many of the farmworkers her organization works with have developed the disease. Even more people, Economos says, exhibit symptoms.
"We feel that there is a high incidence of lupus in the community and that there might be undiagnosed cases of lupus, possibly related to the many cases of arthritis that people are experiencing," she says. But Economos says that little has been done to study health in the farmworker community, and the organizations that advocate for the farmworkers - such as FAF, which operates five outreach offices around the state on a budget of less than $1 million, per its nonprofit tax filings with the IRS - aren't equipped to do such a study themselves. "We do not have the resources to conduct any kind of specific study to determine the number of cases and how that compares to national standards," Economos says.
As a result, Lee says, the farmworkers are lost in a "chemical soup": Without evidence that they've been hurt by pesticides, no one will study their health problems; but without anyone studying their health problems, they can't show evidence that pesticides are what has hurt them.
Although medical professionals suspect a higher likelihood of lupus occurring in a person who is in direct contact with pesticides, and studies show that pesticides could have some relationship to the development of lupus, there is no conclusive evidence that supports it.
In 2006, FAF did manage to come up with funds for a modest health survey of farmworkers in Apopka. With assistance from the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People and the EPA, it embarked on the Lake Apopka Farmworkers Environmental Health Project, which interviewed 148 former farmworkers about their exposure to pesticides on the job and their ensuing health problems.
"Efforts over the years to encourage local, state and federal agencies to undertake a health assessment and/or study of the Lake Apopka farmworker community met with no response or action," the report's introduction notes. "Yet, the community continued to recount stories of debilitating illnesses and even death among their members. While research into the impacts on wildlife on Lake Apopka were ongoing, human health problems, especially that of former Lake Apopka farmworkers, were summarily ignored."
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