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Apopka farmworkers say pesticide exposure caused illnesses

Former workers and activists trying to draw attention to health problems in the community

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2011:05:30 08:41:45

The report determined that 92 percent of those interviewed were exposed to pesticides in the workplace, mostly by touching plants wet with pesticides, being sprayed by pesticides rained down by crop dusters and inhaling drift from the pesticide sprays. When asked to characterize their health condition, 83 percent of those surveyed said they were in "fair" or "poor" health, 85 percent felt that pesticides had affected their health and 79 percent believed that their health problems were directly related to pesticide exposure. Arthritis, rheumatism, throat problems, skin problems, chronic coughing, diabetes and allergies were among the routine problems widely reported in the survey.

In addition, 13 percent of those surveyed reported that they'd had a child born with birth defects, 21 percent had one or more problem pregnancies, 26 percent had children with learning disabilities and 11 percent reported that they lived in a home with one or more people diagnosed with lupus.

Lupus, the report notes, is "the disease with 1,000 faces" because its symptoms are so varied and so vague: headaches, fatigue, weight gain, weight loss, high blood pressure, joint pain (often misdiagnosed as arthritis), chest pain, rheumatism. "The African-American former Lake Apopka farmworker community has expressed concern that the rate of lupus in the area may be higher than average," the report notes, and it points out that the Greater Florida Chapter of the Lupus Foundation of America opened an Apopka office in 1998 because more and more people were turning up with the disease there.

Duane Peters, a spokesman for the Lupus Foundation of America, says that there isn't a lot of reliable data to pinpoint exactly how many people have lupus today, but based on surveys the foundation has conducted, it estimates that 1.5 million people (approximately one half of 1 percent of the 307 million people living in the United States) in the nation have it.

He says that studies thus far have not pinpointed any one reason that people get lupus.

"Pesticides are just one class of many suspected triggers for lupus, including infections, exposure to UV light, hormonal changes due to stress, certain drugs and chemicals," he says. "Scientists are interested in studying all of these factors to answer the question about how lupus develops."

Earlier this year, Dr. Christine Parks, a scientist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, released a study that linked the development of autoimmune diseases, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, with pesticide exposure. According to the study, women were more likely than men to develop the disease, and women who had worked on or lived near farms reported more incidence of lupus. The longer the women studied lived on or near those farms, the study concluded, the higher the likelihood that they might develop the disease.

"Our analyses … suggested an association of self-reported residential insecticide use with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus," Parks says. The findings are not conclusive, she says, but they are consistent with other studies that suggest that there is an association between autoimmune disorders and the farming occupation.

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