Justice never too late for Lake Apopka farmworkers
Sixty-one year old Geraldean Matthew, a former Lake Apopka farmworker , spends most of her days in ill health. Suffering from congestive heart failure, Lupus, and kidney failure, she believes that exposure to highly toxic pesticides that were sprayed several decades ago is responsible for her various illnesses, as well as those of her children.
The predominantly African American community of former Lake Apopka farmworkers in Central Florida, U.S.A., was exposed for decades to the organochlorine pesticides aldrin, endrin, dieldrin, chlordane, DDT, and toxaphene. Used for vegetable cultivation beginning in World War II, these pesticides were eventually all banned, because of their toxicity which resulted in their serious impacts on wildlife and the environment. Because of their persistence in the environment, their legacy continues decades after their use was curtailed. However, survivor farmworkers who were exposed to these same chemicals have yet to achieve justice for violations of their right to life, health, and livelihood.
This December, the story of the Lake Apopka farmworkers will finally have the opportunity to be heard by an international panel of jurors in the upcoming Permanent People's Tribunal (PPT) on Agrochemical Transnational Corporations (TNCs). The PPT will put on trial the six largest companies in the pesticide industry-Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dupont, Dow, and BASF-for gross human rights violations that have impacted vulnerable communities across the globe.
The PPT, whose indictment is brought by Pesticide Action Network International, also aims to come up with an effective system for ensuring corporate accountability of agrochemical TNCs that now control the world's food and agriculture system.
Continuing harm to human health
For over fifty years, the farmworker community of Lake Apopka was exposed to pesticides through aerial spraying; direct dermal contact during planting, harvesting and packing vegetables; consuming fish and wildlife from in and around the lake, drinking water out of the canals that were contaminated with pesticides; and using discarded pesticide containers due to lack of knowledge of their harm.
As a child, Geraldean would play in the vegetable fields while her parents worked. Later, as a teenager and as an adult, she worked in the fields as well, priding herself on her expertise and speed in harvesting and packing the crops. "Planes would fly overhead and spray us, and we would see the pilot laughing as he flew by. No one warned us about the dangers…The pesticides would make your body tingle, your hands and feet would go completely numb. People would get up in the middle of the night to take a shower, even if they've just taken one, because of the tingling and itching. You cough and spit all night long…It got worse as we all got older," Geraldean recalled.
Lake Apopka is the most polluted large lake in the state of Florida. Distinct for its pea green color, the lake was subject to decades of pesticide and fertiliser run-off from the 20,000 acres of farmland that was carved from its north shore wetlands in the 1940's. In 1980, a spill of DDT from the Tower Chemical Company on the lake's south shore was later linked, by researcher Dr. Louis Guillette, to anomalies in the lake's alligator population, including diminished reproductive rates and physical and hormonal abnormalities.
By 1990, all uses of aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, chlordane, DDT, and toxaphene had ended in the U.S. In banning these pesticides, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency referred to the "unacceptable risks to the environment and potential harm to human health, and the human cancer hazards." These pollutants are considered a serious threat because they are long-lasting and bioaccumulate in fatty tissue, becoming more concentrated as they move through the food chain. To this day, they are still found in soil sediments around the lake.
Though use of most organochlorine pesticides has ended, the long-lasting and lingering health effects of exposure to these chemicals means that Geraldean and her adult children continue to suffer the consequences of exposure. "I have two daughters with Lupus. One was born with a heart problem-she always had problems since she was little. Another had a stroke when she was three years old, and suffered epilepsy until her 30s," she said.
When repeated attempts to engage health and political leaders to study the health problems of the farmworker community failed, the Farmworker Association of Florida, in 2005, developed and conducted a community health survey, interviewing some 150 of the former Lake Apopka farmworkers. Survey results showed the former farmworkers to have high rates of multiple and chronic illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes, rheumatism, Lupus, allergies, skin and throat problems, and asthma. These illnesses have been linked to exposure to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), known to cause severe damage to human health including neurological damage, Parkinson's disease, endocrine disruption, cancer, and congenital disorders. A recently released study links chlordane to immune system suppression. The survey also found that almost 40 per cent of farmworkers have children or grandchildren with learning disabilities.
The contamination on the Lake Apopka farmland gained national attention when, in the winter of 1998 to 1999, one of the worst bird death disasters in U.S. history occurred. Some 1,000 fish-eating birds died, when the north shore farmland was unseasonably flooded during the fall and winter bird migration season. After extensive study, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service eventually concluded that traces of toxaphene, dieldrin, and DDT found in bird tissue were responsible for the bird deaths. As the previous studies that linked these chemicals to the genetic mutations and declining population of the lake's alligators showed, this category of pesticides are now included in the class of endocrine disrupting chemicals, resulting in wide-ranging health impacts.
Challenges in pursuing litigation
Lamented Jeannie Economos of FWAF, "Millions and millions of dollars were spent [by the U.S. government and the state of Florida] to buy out the farms on Lake Apopka and to study the wildlife. But nothing has been done to help the people whose health has been impacted."
For over 13 years, the farmworker community has sought help to address their health concerns related to their pesticide exposure. In providing food to feed the American public, their health had been put at risk. FWAF has been helping in efforts to achieve justice for the former farmworkers. In an attempt to draw attention to their issues and to keep their stories alive, the farmworkers have launched the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt Project, a quilt-making initiative to memorialise victims of chronic organochlorine pesticide exposure who have passed away, and to gain support from political leaders and health care organisations in the U.S.
Economos admitted that pursuing litigation against companies responsible for the poisoning has proven to be "complicated and circuitous." "Part of the problem is the way the courts look at burden of proof, which lies with the plaintiff. Most farmworkers that worked on Lake Apopka were not exposed to a single chemical pesticide. Most worked in various crops and even various industries and were thus exposed to a variety of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides," she said. Over the past decade, several lawyers have taken an interest in possible litigation, only to conclude that the case was too complex to try.
However, Economos sees hope in the upcoming PPT on Agrochemical TNCs. The PPT will aim to indict the original manufacturers of the pesticides involved-companies which have grown in wealth and power by selling highly toxic chemicals. Started in 1979, the PPT has held sessions exposing various human rights violations through alternative judgments and legal articulations.
"These TNCs have a stranglehold on agriculture the world over. They have brainwashed many of the world's farmers and politicians… The significance of the PPT is in the people taking their power back from the TNCs and putting them on trial for the harm they have caused to human health, the environment, our planet, and our communities….It is to empower the people and to be the Davids standing up to the TNC Goliaths," she said.
Geraldean agrees. "The PPT will let the chemical companies know that they cannot have it their way, that they cannot keep on poisoning people. It will make new farmers more alert to the dangers of the chemicals that they buy and use," she said.
Through the PPT, Matthew and Economos also hope that the U.S. government will heed the people's specific demands, including a ban oncampaign contributions to politicians from TNCs; the allocation of adequate funds for research into and to promote safe alternatives to pesticides; a health care system that responds to the needs of low-income people such as those from Lake Apopka; and an intensive health study of the health of farmworkers to be able to use the data to prohibit the registration of new pesticides.
"As for the Lake Apopka former farmworkers, the pesticides of concern are already banned, but are persistent in the environment and in people's bodies. Even if we could clean up the environment, how do you clean up bodies that have POPs such as these organochlorine pesticides stored in their tissues, and that are passed down generationally?" Economos further said.
Clearly, the need for justice remains, and grows even stronger as it continues to elude Lake Apopka survivors such as Geraldean. Through the PPT, the community hopes to see that justice is served.
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