Pesticide Exposure

Quilting to Give a Community a Voice

“We would like to dedicate this blog in memory of the four Lake Apopka farmworkers, community leaders, and long-time Farmworker Association of Florida members – strong and dedicated women leaders and agricultural workers – who we lost in 2013.  In memory of Angela Tanner, Willie Mae Williams, Betty Woods, and Louise Seay.  With gratitude and remembrance from the community.  We will miss you.”

By Jeannie Economos

When I first started working for the Farmworker Association of Florida in 1996, they told me part of my job was to work on the issue of Lake Apopka.  Little did I know at the time that Lake Apopka would become my life’s work for the next 17 years. And, it would become personal…as I came to know and love the community of people I worked with – the farmworkers who fed America for generations.

Untitled-2Lake Apopka is Florida’s most contaminated large lake.  On the north shore, 20,000 acres of farmland were carved out of what was once the bottom of Lake Apopka.  Farmworkers farmed that land – they call it muck –for decades beginning in the 1940s during World War II until the farms were bought out by the state and shut down in 1998 for the purpose of trying to restore the lake’s natural wetlands.

Alligator studies in the 1980s and the tragic death of over 1,000 aquatic birds on Lake Apopka in 1998-99 were linked to toxic organochlorine pesticides that had been used on the farms prior to their being banned in the 1970s. Farmworkers were exposed to these same chemicals, but nobody was looking at their health problems from chronic occupational pesticide exposure on the farmlands. Millions were spent to study alligators, and later the birds, and to try to restore the ‘dead’ lake. But no money was ever spent to address the health concerns of the farmworkers, who were acutely exposed to these pesticides for years.

The community would not accept this, especially when they saw their friends and family members getting sick and even dying.  Thus, was born the idea of the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt Project.  With a lot of hard work and commitment from former Lake Apopka farmworkers from Apopka and Indiantown, it has become a reality. The quilts were created to honor the lives of the farmworkers who have been exposed to the pesticides and to keep alive their history. The artwork of each individual square weaves the personal stories, tragedies, and small victories together to speak about the environmental injustices at Lake Apopka. The Lake Apopka farmworker leaders continue to use the quilts to both raise awareness among student and church groups about environmental justice and their community, and as a tool to press their case with state and local decision makers to address the health and environmental problems facing their community members.


2013 MLK Day Parade in Florida

Today, the quilts have been viewed by thousands of Floridians and exhibited all across the state, including in Orlando City Hall, the Orange County Public Library, the Alachua County Public Library and the African American Museum of Art. This has helped spread awareness of the injustices the farmworkers face, and has helped build attention from the state legislature, which has been working to propose legislation which would provide long-term health care services for the affected residents surrounding the lake.

Is there still a need to address health care for the farmworkers on Lake Apopka?  Yes, but the creation of the quilts has given the community a voice and a message that they didn’t have before.  And, it has been a way for members to turn their pain into folk art that memorializes the ones they love.  Validation is what the community wants.  The quilts are one way to validate their lives and their contributions to our society.  

About the author: Jeannie has worked for over 20 years on issues of the environment, environmental justice, indigenous and immigrants’ rights, labor, peace, and social justice. From 1996-2001, she worked for the Farmworker Association of Florida as the Lake Apopka Project Coordinator, addressing the issues of job loss, displacement, and health problems of the farmworkers who worked on the farm lands on Lake Apopka prior to the closing of the farms in 1998. After the bird mortality in 1998-99, her focus turned to the pesticide-related health problems of the former Lake Apopka farmworkers, who were exposed to the same damaging organochlorine pesticides that were implicated in the bird deaths.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Partnering to Improve Farmworker Pesticide Safety

Several links below exit EPA Exit EPA Disclaimer

Haga clic en la imagen para unirse a la conversación en nuestro blog en español… ¡No olvide de suscribirse!

By Ashley Nelsen

Image of a family at home.Pesticides play an important role in providing us the variety of fruits and vegetables that we have come to expect. It’s my office’s job to ensure that pesticides do their job in the field and don’t pose unnecessary health risks to people. When studies showed that children of farmworkers are exposed to pesticide residues found in their homes, a longstanding partnership between the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) and the EPA went into action.

The product of this partnership is Project LEAF (Limiting Exposure Around Families) and its training materials. Project LEAF was designed to educate farmworkers and their families on the hazards, prevention and mitigation of take-home pesticide exposure. Carefully crafted messages throughout the training and the training materials are designed to create permanent behavior change, such as laundering family clothing separate from work clothing, thus reducing pesticide residue within the home.

Educating farmworkers, their families and other environmental justice communities on pesticide safety poses unique challenges. America’s farmworkers often migrate with the ebb and flow of the seasons, making it difficult to locate them for safety training. Farmworkers today are predominantly Hispanic and often struggle with low literacy. Therefore, training and supporting materials such as brochures, pocket foldout cards, posters, magnets and public service announcements were designed to be bilingual, culturally sensitive, and low literacy.

In addition to developing the training and its supporting materials, AFOP delivers free Project LEAF training throughout the country. They are one of very few organizations capable of reaching the migrant farmworker population, cultivating the important relationship between farmers and growers, and assisting in locating important resources such as clinics, agricultural extension and churches for farmworkers.

The partnership between the EPA and AFOP has allowed the EPA to cost effectively access AFOP’s national farmworker network. We’re excited about the impact this training makes on the farmworker population by enabling them to protect themselves and their children. Read more information about free Project LEAF training.

About the author: Ashley Nelsen began working at the EPA’s HQ Office in Washington, DC, in May 2008 as an intern, returning as a permanent employee in September 2009. She received her M.A. in International Environmental Policy and Spanish at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Ashley currently works on issues related to farmworker outreach, pesticide safety, the EPA regulation for worker protection and international pesticide policy.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.