A Life Engulfed by Pesticides


Barry Estabrook

Leaning on her cane, Linda Lee matter-of-factly listed her medical conditions: diabetes, lupus, high blood pressure, emphysema, and arthritis. She had her hip 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, the 57-year-old resident of Apopka, Florida, doesn't hesitate: for nearly a decade as a farm laborer on the shores of Lake Apopka in the 1970s and 1980s, she was routinely exposed to agricultural chemicals.

Sadly, Lee is in no way unusual among the roughly 2,500 African Americans, Haitians, and Mexicans with whom she toiled. In a survey of workers conducted in 2006—eight years after the Apopka farms were closed—the Farmworker Association of Florida found that 92 percent of respondents had been exposed to pesticides through a combination of aerial spraying, wind drift, touching plants still wet with pesticides, or inhaling pesticides. They reported arthritis, throat problems, diabetes, persistent coughing, recurring rashes, miscarriages, birth defects, and childhood developmental difficulties—all conditions that research studies have linked to chemicals applied in the area.

"Plenty of my old friends and neighbors got what I got, and a lot of them got stuff I don't want to get," Lee told me last week when I joined a group of students from the women's studies department at the University of Central Florida. With Lee as one of their guides, they were touring the Lake Apopka area for a firsthand look at one of the country's most extreme examples of what happens when agribusiness shows utter disregard for the environment and for the welfare of workers.

Located 15 miles northwest of Orlando, almost in the shadow of Disney's Magic Kingdom, Lake Apopka has had many claims to fame. About 10 miles in diameter, it 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. But by the 1980s, Apopka had earned yet another distinction: it was the Sunshine State's most polluted large lake. The fabled bass were extinct.

Blame for the declining water quality was not hard to assign. In 1941, as part of the wartime effort to produce more fruits and vegetables, 19,000 acres of swamp on the lake's north shore were drained to make way for "muck farms" in the rich soil. During the growing season, farmers pumped water in and out of the lake depending on irrigation requirements and rainfall amounts. In the off-season, they allowed the lake to flood the fields to replenish the soil and prevent wind erosion and weed growth. With each cycle, the water not only picked up chemical fertilizers, but DDT, toxaphene, endrin, aldrin, dieldrin—a veritable witch's brew of endocrine-disrupting organochlorine pesticides. The water turned pea-green. The only surviving fish were tough, trashy, minnow-like gizzard shad.

By 1996, the situation had become so dire that the Florida government bought out the landowners and closed down the farms. The 14 landowners were paid $103 million for property and equipment. (In one of the sweetest deals, a farm sold the government a vegetable cooler for $1.4 million and then turned around and bought it back at auction for $35,000.) The 2,500 workers, who often had families that lived with them on the land, got nothing other than orders to clear out.

In the winter of 1998, the Saint John's River Water Management District decided to reverse the usual pattern of water flow and flooded the recently acquired land in the winter to attract migrating waterfowl. Sure enough, that year the Audubon Society tallied the largest ever recorded Christmas count of migrating birds for an inland location. The joy was short-lived. By the end of the winter, more than 1,000 fish-eating birds had died—blue herons, white pelicans, bald eagles. It was one of the worst bird-death disasters in United States history. A $1.5-million scientific investigation was launched. After a few years, researchers determined that the cause of the deaths was pesticide poisoning.

Money spent on investigations into the health of alligators also showed disturbing signs. Males had stunted penises and high levels of estrogen; females had high levels of testosterone. Reproductive rates were far below normal. Again, pesticide poisoning was the cause.

But while there was no shortage of research money for reptile and bird illnesses, not a plug nickel was spent on examining the laborers who spent their lives working, eating, and sleeping on the contaminated land.

"It's painful trying to get up in the morning and get from one day to the next," Lee said as we walked along a sandy track though the now-overgrown fields. Even though a dozen seasons have come and gone since the lass pass of a pesticide spraying tractor, signs read: "Warning. Visitors must stay on roads. No fishing allowed on this property. These lands were former agricultural land that were subject to regular use of agricultural chemicals, some of which, such as DDT, are persistent in the environment and may present a risk to human health." Lee received no such warnings when she went into the fields to pick corn, cabbages, carrots, and greens, receiving 12 cents to pack a box of corn, 15 cents for a box of greens.

We finally reached a small park by the lakeshore and took shelter in the shade of a live oak, a welcome respite from the scorching sun and unbearable humidity. Cicadas trilled from the scrubby brush that has replaced the rows of vegetables. There was no wind. The water, while not pea-green, was khaki-colored and opaque. It was high noon on a sunny summer day in the middle of a metropolitan area of 2 million people, and there was not a soul on the entire 50-square-mile lake. Who would want to be there?

Having received no medical support from any level of government, Lee and her friends are now in the process of making a quilt to commemorate the time they and their families spent providing the country with fresh fruits and vegetables. They hope the project may bring a little attention to their plight and perhaps spur politicians into action. "We've been begging and begging for medical attention," she said. "But no one listens."