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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

Over the years that Apopka's workers spent on the muck farms, Economos says, they were exposed to multiple chemical compounds, including DDT and DDE as well as toxaphene, aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin and endrin, which are classified as part of a "dirty dozen" group of chemicals that have been banned internationally due to extreme toxicity.

"All of them were found in bird tissue when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did studies of the dead birds," Economos says. "If these pesticides had an effect on wildlife and the environment, why is it not a logical conclusion to infer that they have had an impact on the humans who were also exposed, especially those exposed regularly and in such close proximity and in such concentrations? There has been a whole body of scientific studies in recent years that link endocrine-disrupting pesticides to health problems in people and wildlife."

Economos says that over the years, the Florida Farmworker Association has submitted three proposals to the National Institutes of Health to get funding to conduct a study of the farmworkers' illnesses.

"We wanted to learn about what health problems people were experiencing and we wanted to be able to do blood tests to learn about levels of pesticides in blood of farmworkers who used to work on Lake Apopka," Economos says.

Each time they applied, though, the organization's proposals were rejected.

When asked to explain why the NIH rejected the Farmworker Association's applications, Trish Reynolds of the NIH's National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases says she cannot comment. "NIH doesn't make public any information about unfunded grant applications," she says.

The health survey conducted by the Florida Farmworker Association recommends, among other things, that it's time that state or local government step up and "develop and conduct a comprehensive study of the former Lake Apopka farmworkers to look at both the health of adults and the incidence of health problems in their offspring, and to test participants for body burden levels of toxicity."

"In the eight years since the closing of the farms on Lake Apopka, and the devastating bird-death incident that followed, there have been no actions, interventions or other efforts on the part of the state and/or local government to address in any comprehensive way the community's actual and/or perceived health problems," the report says. "There has been no outreach to this population to even determine the nature and extent of illness and disease they are experiencing."

In 2002, the Orange County Health Department did take some interest in the lupus-pesticide connection. According to spokesman Dain Weister, the county worked with the state to open two health clinics in Apopka and Zellwood, and it looked at rates of hospitalization in those communities.

"A study of hospitalization rates for cancer and lupus from the years of 1992-1998 didn't show higher rates for the Apopka area when compared to the rest of the state," Weister says. "The health department has held numerous community meetings and has conducted more than 250 surveys of people in the Apopka area to help address their concerns."

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