Apopka Farmworkers Suffer from Lax Pesticide Regulations
With one of the country's highest populations of farmworkers, Florida farms are feeding the nation. But advocates for farmworkers say the true cost of growing fruits and vegetables can sometimes far exceed the price tag at the grocery store. With the EPA considering stricter regulations for pesticide protections, the plight of Apopka farmworkers come front and center.
Miguel Zelaya advocates for the rights of his fellow farmworkers at the Farmworker Association of Florida. He says there are federal regulations in the Worker Protection Standard that require employees to provide protective gear and alert workers when pesticides are in use. However, Zelaya claims they're rarely enforced. He says workers enter into hazardous areas without knowing what has been sprayed, or the dangers that they might face. But when he went to Washington D.C. this January to ask lawmakers to take another look at farmworker conditions, he was met with indifference.
According to Pollution Prevention Resource Exchange, Florida is the 2nd largest user of pesticides in the country. The exchange, which is partly funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, lists over 12,000 varieties of pesticide in use in the state, and 48 ingredients which are restricted because of their toxicity to humans. The Florida Agricultural Workers Safety Act or (FAWSA) is supposed to give farmworkers the protection they need. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services says it performs about 800 inspections across the state annually, and workers are encouraged to report violations. Andrew Meadows, of Florida Citrus Mutual, says employers know what’s required of them, “Growers are required by the state and federal government to follow the label of any sort of inputs or pesticides that they use and those labels are designed to protect not only the grower but his employees.”
But the biggest challenge farmworkers may face in creating a better work environment is their own silence. The Farmworker Association of Florida says undocumented workers fear deportation if they speak up, while those with papers are afraid of losing their jobs.
Linda Lee, a resident and former farmer of South Apopka says that this kind of treatment is nothing new; "we’re not dirt, we’re not dogs, we’re not animals; I’ll treat a dog better than I’ve seen some people treat a human being. “
The 62 year old African American remembers tending to the fields while planes sprayed pesticides with workers in the crops below. Now Lee, like many of her neighbors, suffers from Lupus, an autoimmune deficiency which has also been linked to exposure to pesticides. She’s fighting for recognition that the cause of this disease in her community is from years of exposure. So far, Lee has had no luck in garnering medical attention for her neighborhood. But Lee says that won't stop her from trying, "my people might not see the change before they pass on, but lord we just pray that there is a change.”
Until more regulations are enforced, advocacy groups like the Farmworker Association of Florida are encouraging farmworkers to reach out to the department of Agriculture and Consumer services for investigation into their complaints.
In an earlier version of this story, it was reported that Yesica Ramirez worked for Agri Starts. WMFE has since learned that this was incorrect. WMFE has seen documentation showing Ramirez worked for a company called Agri-Starts II. According to Florida State Department of Corporations (Sunbiz) records, this company is no longer active. It was voluntarily dissolved in 2008. WMFE regrets the error.