by Becky Wilson
Linda Lee ascends to the podium slowly, for her mobility is limited by her multiple health conditions.
Speaking before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) on September 22nd in Orlando, she details her story of injustice. Her unassuming presence does not prepare you to hear her powerful words. Linda Lee speaks out frequently about farmworker rights, and getting justice in her hometown of Apopka.
She is a Farmworker Association of Florida member and she works tirelessly for the farmworker community and the community of South Apopka.
Linda Lee began working on the farms when she was eight years old. Today, she experiences symptoms from Lupus, kidney failure, vision problems, and has had 8 operations. She suffers the long-term, chronic effects of decades-long daily exposure to pesticides.
A muck farmworker for many years, Linda worked harvesting vegetable crops – corn, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, radishes, broccoli and more – on the farmlands of Lake Apopka in Central Florida. Linda herself was not conscious of the risks of pesticide exposure in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, because there was no education required for farmworkers around the threats to their health from these toxic chemicals. Farmworkers commonly used empty pesticide containers for doing laundry and for other household tasks.
They were, also, exposed to pesticides through aerial spraying of crops, wind drift, touching plants wet with pesticides, and directly inhaling these toxic chemicals. Farmworkers even used to linger under the aerial spraying for the cool breeze from above, refreshing in the Florida heat. No one alerted them to the dangers.
The chemicals commonly used in those decades on the Lake Apopka muck farms – DDT, toxaphene, endrin, aldrin, dieldrin, and chlordane – are all highly toxic organochlorine pesticides and all have been subsequently banned because of their harmful impact on the environment. All are considered persistent organic pollutants and all are endocrine disrupting chemicals, which means they affect the body’s hormone system.
In 1998 the Lake Apopka farms were purchased by the state of Florida in order to stop nutrient run-off from the farms into the lake and all farming operations ended. Overnight, over 2000 farmworkers lost their jobs and some who lived in company-owned housing also lost their homes.
After the farm shut-down, portions of the north shore farm land were re-flooded in an attempt to restore wetlands. Then, in the winter of 1998-1999, some 1,000 migrating birds died over a couple of months due to pesticide exposure from consuming fish from the canals on the contaminated muck farms. Yet, the health impacts on the former farmworkers were dismissed and were never linked to their exposure to pesticides. Over $113 million of state taxpayer dollars went to purchase the farms and millions more to study the lake and the wildlife, while not a dime ever reached the human causalities of Lake Apopka.
Linda herself speaks out saying “There are people in South Apopka actually dying from the stuff (pesticides). They had the bird deaths, they had the fish deaths, nobody did research on us to see what was plaguing our bodies.” These former farmworkers can, and do, wind up with conditions like arthritis, respiratory problems, diabetes, persistent coughing, recurring rashes and scarring, Lupus, breast cancer, as well as miscarriages, birth defects, developmental and learning disabilities in their children, such as ADHD and autism.
Despite this great need for health care, for Linda, it is almost impossible to get. She has to take several buses which takes several hours to get to and from her doctor in Orlando. Of her experience with health care in Apopka, she says, “doctors treat you like trash” because you are a minority and low-income. Her kidney problems are actually the result of medical misdiagnosis, and these failings led to her being over prescribed unnecessary medications.
In the face of this injustice, Linda is “going to continue to speak out,” as this issue is central to her daily life. “I lost my daughter and my granddaughter, just this year.” Linda now struggles to take care of her two grandchildren and three young great grandsons, as well as maintain her home. When her granddaughter recently died of Lupus, all of Linda’s money for a new roof for her small home in South Apopka went to cover the funeral costs for her granddaughter, who was only twenty-five years old. There is a GoFundMe in order to help her buy a new a roof for her house, as she cannot afford it any other way.
Health issues caused by pesticides can be inter-generational. Children of farmworkers are exposed by contact with their parents who have pesticides on their work clothes and bodies. They can be exposed by drift, because they typically live in the vicinity of the farms and homes and vehicles often contain pesticide residues on floors and furniture.
Linda Lee speaks out on these issues whenever she can, wherever there are people to listen.
Besides just speaking out, Linda has worked with her community to create the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt Project. This quilt brings together the stories of loss among farmworkers, one square at a time. The Quilts bring Linda a renewed hope and commitment to the plight of the former Lake Apopka farmworkers. She wants to share the legacy of African American farmworkers who were the backbone of agriculture in the state for decades.
These Quilts are a source of validation for the community: they are a tangible representation of a community’s struggle, of their loss.
Over ninety percent of the workers on Lake Apopka muck farms were directly exposed to pesticides.
There are two EPA designated Superfund sites, one on the north shore and the one on the south shore, that are linked to the alligator population declines and anomalies studied and made famous by the late UF scientist Dr. Louis Guillette.
After 15 years of advocacy on the part of farmworker organizations around the country, the EPA recently issued the first new and stronger protections for farmworkers in twenty years. The Worker Protection Standard to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure now includes a requirement to train farmworkers annually on health and safety related to occupational exposure to agricultural pesticides. Future generations of farmworkers will, hopefully, benefit from these stronger regulations. But, it is too late to solve the health problems of the Lake Apopka farmworkers. Yet, the community continues to raise awareness and continues to speak out.
Farmworkers feed the entire nation in what is an essential and honorable occupation, and yet they still are largely “the invisible ones” – out of sight and out of mind of most of the American population. The many injustices they suffer are largely under the radar screen of even the newly “food conscious” public.
With incredible energy and drive, Linda Lee promises from the podium “I’m going to keep fighting.” She needs us to fight with her. If you would like more information or if you would like to help farmworker Linda Lee, please contact Jeannie at the Farmworker Association of Florida at 407-886-5151 or firstname.lastname@example.org.