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What kind of sick legacy are we leaving behind in Florida?

Published on March 11, 2020
Written by Stel Bailey of Fight For Zero

When I think of “cancer,” I replay the incredible stories of illness told by hundreds of people affected in my hometown on the east coast of Florida. We live in an area that’s postcard-perfect with frequent space launches and where water surrounds our lifestyles. Every sunset paints a vibrant picture of warm hues in the sky. We awake to white ibis quietly foraging insects, seagulls flying above, the sound of roaring waves, and the smell of saltwater in the air. 

Our painting was forever altered in 2018 after discovering that the groundwater at Patrick Air Force Base found to have astronomical levels, over 4 million parts per trillion, of dangerous PFAS chemicals in the water. A group of cancer patients and survivors came together and did independent water testing funded by themselves. The discoveries only got worse as data was collected, and communities continued to research. We found it was in the waterways, in wildlife, and that our county was surrounded by this forever chemical. That began a citizen initiative to embrace science and get civically engaged. We were relearning everything we knew about what we called home, and the things we thought were safe. 

A grassroots effort began, and our names were combined onto a self-reported sheet that went from 120 cases to over 800 within a few months. We found that leukemia, breast, urinary bladder, liver, pancreas, and lymphoma cancer, along with ALS, was prevalent in the area. A significant percentage of these cases were diagnosed at young ages and in long term residents with generations of their families living on the space coast of Florida. Many of them reported they had no genetic prepositions and even had genetic testing done that further proved they don’t have mutating genes. 

I hear stories that should be unheard of happening right here in Florida communities affected by PFAS and other contamination. Government officials say that a daughter, mother, and childhood best friend fighting cancer at the same time is “normal.” They say that 12 cases of breast cancer on one street is just a “coincidence.” They say that the same home where different owners are diagnosed with the same disease is being “paranoid.” We’re told that several graduates of one high school diagnosed with rare cancers is just “bad luck.” They tell us we should be grateful to be alive but fail to recognize that we are living in a world where exposing people to toxic chemicals is normalized. Those who suffered from corporate negligence have stories that need to be heard.

Imagine being diagnosed at such a young age with long-term effects. Your life is forever altered with chronic pain, problems with memory, scarring after surgery, problems fighting infection, nutritional issues, and more. We are continuously sick and haunted by memories of our diagnosis, knowing we’ll never be the same. I look at cancer battles as preparing us to become fearless fighters to educate and save future generations. After all, we had to learn to be our own best advocates when going through medical treatments. 

The water quality and environmental issues we face in the entire state of Florida are incomprehensible. We had no idea that these dangerous and harmful chemicals were lurking in our waterways. There’s no changing the past, but what we can change is the present by using the energy of survivorship to advocate for less pollution, more accountability, and stricter rules on toxic chemicals. Our children and future generations deserve better. #FightForZero

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