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What happens when you’re over-exposed to toxic herbicides and pesticides?

Jul 28, 2020

When I was a child, my mother and stepfather owned and operated a plant nursery in south Florida. As a little girl, I used to play on the mounds of soil and fertilizer, pretending they were mountains. I ran barefoot through the drainage ditches alongside the greenhouses, stopping occasionally to dig up pincher bugs and watch them fight one another. Little did my parents know, the pesticide sludge and runoff–permeating our groundwater, filling our ditches, drenching our crops–was accumulating in their bodies and causing extreme chemical sensitivity. There in the heart of Palm Beach County, nestled between tomato farms, plant nurseries, and canopies of crop dust, pesticide exposure was not only inevitable, but eminent. 


My folks were primarily spraying diazinon, once a household insecticide and now a Restricted Use Pesticide, as classified by the EPA. They were wearing personal protective suits, as required by the EPA, but they didn’t function as intended. The suits they wore in the midsummer south Florida heat, became totally ineffective once the inside got wet from their perspiration. Instead, the chemicals were trapped against their skin, unable to escape the semipermeable membrane that had been created. My mom would talk of the taste of metal in her mouth and on her skin after each time she sprayed.  The poisons accumulated in both my parents, and they quickly developed escalating allergic reactions that persisted well after they discontinued the use of the pesticides on their own nursery. 


In August of 1996, my stepdad fell ill with a “disease” that twenty doctors couldn’t diagnose. Some said it was lupus, others said it was gout. Some swore it was rheumatoid arthritis, while others claimed it was cancer. All they really knew was that he couldn’t walk; his ankles, knees and hips were swollen to the point of needing drainage several times a week;  he was having sporadic and uncontrollable nosebleeds that would last up to an hour; and he was confined to a wheelchair for nearly a year. Doctors thought he would never walk again, yet refused to listen when he told them the cause, which was clear as day in his mind: he was delivering seed to a client’s nursery who had just sprayed, and that evening his joints began swelling. 


Over the years, my mother’s reactions would grow stronger with each exposure. In the beginning, she could feel her tongue swelling, and she would take Benadryl, which stopped the histamine response. Over time, however, she didn’t even need to be the one spraying to have an allergic reaction. She could drive down our gravel road, pass a freshly sprayed field from a neighboring farm, and within an hour go into anaphylactic shock, rushing to the hospital time and again. What became very clear is that the chemicals were pervasive in our environment. We moved off the farm shortly after her first severe reaction, but by then a neighbor’s termite fumigation or the fly-over mosquito spraying that was ubiquitous in Palm Beach County would quickly set off a reaction. Our family was on the county’s “chemical sensitivity” list, and at least twice a month, we would get a call that the county was about to do aerial spraying, and we would flee to a nearby county and stay in a hotel until it was safe to return home. 


This went on for a few more years, while my folks continued to work in the nursery industry. My mom had taken over the company while my stepdad was wheel-chair bound. One day, she made a delivery to a nearby farm. When she got out of the truck she immediately smelled the remnants of a recently-sprayed chemical in the air, so she got back in the truck, rolled up all of the windows and sped off.  One hour and three doses of Benadryl later, her tongue was so swollen she was choking on it, and she was convulsing violently enough to shake the door panel off the car.  Her arms were drawing up to her chest and her fingers were curling in on themselves. The doctors told us we got to the emergency room just in time, that her blood pressure was so high that she could have had a stroke at any moment. 


A week later, my parents picked up the whole family and moved to the middle of the woods in Columbia County, Florida to begin what would become a 4-year detox.  


Later, my parents had a hair analysis done, and found that their aluminum and mercury traces were off the charts. For years afterward, even the smell of nail polish could trigger an allergic reaction. After a complete 180 in lifestyle choices–eating all organic, ditching all toxic cleaning chemicals, not even allowing their then-teenage daughter to use certain hair products–they were able to heal their bodies enough to re-enter society and lead more normal lives. 


As you might imagine, as a young person, this made a huge impact on my view of the world and left me searching for a better way. The other thread of my life takes place in western North Carolina, the place of my birth, the home of my father and my ancestors dating back to the mid-1600s. As if two sides of a very different coin, my childhood in southern Appalachia was punctuated with pristine lakes, seemingly endless temperate rainforest, wagon trains, fireflies, and other idyllic scenes. This juxtaposition laid the foundation for a lifelong inquiry: how do we reconcile the human built environment and the natural world, creating a conversation between the two that is life-giving? This is exactly what I hope to explore together in the pawpaw patch.

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