Persistent pollutants have found an unfortunate laboratory in the waters of Lake Apopka, Florida. Their destructive and lingering effects on humans and nature are chronicled in Barry Estabrook’s recent article in The Atlantic, "A Life Engulfed by Pesticides." The article explores the tragedy of how Lake Apopka, once famous for its trophy largemouth bass, was reduced to little more than a dirty, discolored and dangerous patch of swamp a few miles north of Orlando. The culprit? A “veritable witch’s brew of endocrine-disrupting organochlorine (PDF) pesticides” that contaminated the waters of Lake Apopka, starting in the 1940s when its waters were used to irrigate surrounding fields and then allowed to flow back into the lake. With each irrigation cycle, the water carried back a more potent mixture of poisons, thus endangering farmworkers, devastating marine life, and killing wildlife that fed on what few fish survived.
"By 1996, the situation had become so dire that the Florida government bought out the landowners and closed down the farms," reports Estabrook. "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 1998, after the abandoned fields were flooded to provide a winter refuge for migrating waterfowl, Lake Apopka became the site of “one of the worst bird-death disasters in United States history”. The region remains toxic, surrounded by warning signs reading: “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." Yet the people who bore the brunt of that risk have been ignored by the Florida government. According to a survey (PDF) conducted by PAN partner Farmworker Association of Florida, 92% of these workers now suffer from multiple health complications including diabetes, lupus, high blood pressure, emphysema, arthritis, recurring rashes, miscarriages, birth defects, and childhood developmental difficulties – disorders that have been linked to the organochlorine pesticides that were in use on the farms. According to the article, farmworkers have not received compensation or medical aid in the 15 years since the farms were shut down. "We’ve been begging and begging for medical attention," says Linda Lee, one of the women who used to work on the farms around Lake Apopka, "But no one listens."