The Sunshine State's Pesticide Problem

Thousands of black farm laborers have suffered kidney failure, birth defects, and worse—and Florida isn't compensating them

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No wonder Tea Party activists love Florida governor Rick Scott. To save a pittance on the state's budget, Scott, who has a personal net worth of more than $200 million, thanks in part to his having been president of a healthcare company that perpetrated the biggest medical fraud in United States history, vetoed a bill earlier this month that finally would have brought relief to 2,500 poverty-plagued African American farm laborers. Over the course of five decades, these people were poisoned on a daily basis by a witch's brew of pesticides.

I met Linda Lee, one of the afflicted workers, last summer when she took me on a "pesticide tour" of the land near Lake Apopka, a few miles northeast of Orlando. Leaning on her cane in the scorching midday June sun, Lee, who is 57, matter-of-factly listed her medical conditions: diabetes, lupus, high blood pressure, emphysema, and arthritis. Her hip had to be replaced and her gall bladder removed. Her kidneys failed, so she had a transplant. She also had two corneal implants. Asked what caused her woes, she didn't hesitate: As a farm laborer on the shores of Lake Apopka in the 1970s and 1980s, she was routinely exposed to agricultural chemicals as she worked in the fields. "Plenty of my old friends and neighbors got what I got, and a lot of them got stuff I don't want to get," she told me.

"The governor just canceled out our hard work," Lee said. He broke the spirits of so many in South Apopka that really need healthcare and don't receive it."

In a survey of workers conducted in 2006, the Farmworker Association of Florida found that 92 percent of the agricultural workers in the region had been exposed to pesticides through a combination of aerial spraying, wind drifting from applications on adjacent fields, touching plants still wet with pesticides, and inhaling pesticides. In a state where the average incidence of birth defects is 3 percent, 13 percent of the Apopka workers had a child born with a defect.

For the last 12 years, the Farmworker Association has been trying to get someone—anyone—to pay attention to this cluster of illnesses and provide money to help those most in need. The state government was able to find $1.5 million to investigate illnesses and deaths in birds. It paid for research into why alligators around Apopka had smaller than normal penises, but not a nickel was spent on the laborers who spent their lives working, eating, and sleeping on the contaminated land.

Finally, state senator Gary Siplin, a Democrat, put an allocation of $500,000 for the Apopka workers in the $70 billion 2011 budget. Surprisingly, that budget passed the house and senate, both overwhelmingly Republican, only to be vetoed by Governor Scott. "We were so close," Lee said. "The governor just canceled out our hard work. He broke the spirits of so many in South Apopka that really need healthcare and don't receive it."

Scott's veto is the latest tragedy in one of the country's biggest environmental boondoggles. Roughly circular and measuring about 10 miles in diameter, Lake Apopka is the state's fourth largest lake. For a time in the first half of the 20th century, it was nationally famous for its trophy largemouth bass, and 21 lodges sprang up on its shores to cater to anglers from around the world.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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