By Marc Lallanilla
Nothing can express affection on Valentine's Day better than a bouquet of fresh flowers. But those floral beauties come at a high cost — for the health of the workers that harvest them. That's because most flowers are grown free from many pesticide regulations, leaving low-wage floral industry workers vulnerable to toxic exposures.
Now, in part because of growing pressure from consumers, who are beginning to seek alternatives like organically grown flowers, flower buyers worldwide appear increasingly concerned about the environmental and health hazards of pesticide use.
About 65 percent of the flowers sold in the United States are imported, primarily from Colombia and Ecuador. For those nations, blessed by rich volcanic soils, ample sunshine and a mild climate, floriculture investment has blossomed into a large and profitable industry. Colombia alone exports about $630 million worth of flowers annually.
And even critics of the flower industry agree the stable jobs and higher-than-average wages provided by flower growers are a benefit to workers. In recent years, for example, some large commercial growers have attempted to provide better housing, schools and health care for communities surrounding their farms.
But reports from the field suggest life as a flower farm employee is no bed of roses.
On Nov. 25, 2003, for instance, about 200 workers were poisoned by pesticides at a flower farm in Colombia. A preliminary government investigation indicated many of the workers required hospitalization; three remained under observation for several days.
Such worker exposure is not uncommon, according to the National Institutes of Health. A May 2002 report in Environmental Health Perspectives described farms in Costa Rica where more than half the workers complained of nausea, skin eruptions, headache, dizziness and fainting — all symptoms of pesticide exposure.
The problem isn't limited to developing nations.
Most U.S. flower production occurs in California, where flowers and other ornamentals ranked sixth among all crops causing pesticide illnesses, according to data compiled by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. In San Mateo County, 23 percent of all pesticide poisonings occurred in the flower industry.
Exposure to agricultural chemicals can be intensified in enclosed greenhouses, where fogging fumigation is common. "It's especially hazardous because they're filling a room with aerosol pesticides," says Dr. Richard Fenske, an industrial hygienist with the University of Washington at Seattle Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.
Protective clothing is designed to shield workers from pesticides, but critics charge it's often ineffective. Clothes that are cumbersome or make breathing difficult are often discarded. Some workers complain about protective clothing that is old or torn.
"Under realistic working conditions, much protective clothing would fail," notes Fenske. "We don't have a program that tests chemical protective clothing under real-world conditions, and there are no real rules for maintaining protective clothing."
Of special concern to experts is the health of the women make up the majority of workers in the floriculture industry.
"Long-term exposures to low levels of pesticides might not make these women sick," says Dr. Marion Moses, a physician and founder of the Pesticide Education Center in San Francisco. "But a lot of these pesticides are cancer-causing agents that can cross the placenta and affect the health of their children."
Gilding the Lily
So is that lovely bouquet of long-stemmed red roses a threat to your true love's health?
Not likely, says Moses. "Pesticide exposures to people buying flowers in the U.S. are trivial."
Even among professional florists who work with flowers daily, exposure may aggravate some chemical sensitivities but is not likely to cause serious health problems, according to most medical experts.
And yet it is consumers themselves who play a key role in the way flowers are doused with pesticides, fungicides and preservatives, say industry observers.
"The consumer has come to expect a blemish-free flower," explains Dr. Terril Nell, chairman and professor of the Environmental Horticulture Department at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
The pursuit of floral perfection extends from consumers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects shipments of flowers and plants from other countries. One insect, or a single leaf with a spot of fungus, and an entire shipment can be rejected.
This places enormous pressure on flower growers to ensure every plant is flawless, even if tons of agricultural chemicals are needed to achieve that perfection. "Growers do have a responsibility to get flowers through inspection and to make sure they sell," says Nell.
But growing pressure from some advocacy groups, especially in Europe, has brought about substantial reform within the flower industry.
For instance, in 1998, Germany instituted the Flower Label Program, which sets guidelines for environmental and worker protection. Similar "green label" programs have been founded in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
The floriculture industry's response to public concerns and labeling guidelines has brought about significant change. "There's been a 40 percent reduction in pesticide use in Colombia over last three to four years," says Nell. "They're putting good environmental responsibility to work.
"When I was a grad student 25 years ago, we would spray every week to make sure we controlled all pests. It was a preventative program. Now, we're doing more scouting," Nell says, referring to the practice of inspecting plants for pests before applying unnecessary pesticides. "This saves money — economics are driving it as well."
Some flower-exporting countries have instituted their own environmental labeling programs. The Kenyan Flower Council has developed a Code of Practice to improve worker protection and reduce dependence on pesticides. Colombia's Florverde program attempts to ensure protective clothing is available to all workers and chemicals used are low-toxicity chemicals.
Many of these programs, however, are voluntary and self-regulating. Of an estimated 500 flower-growing farms in Colombia, only 25 have been certified by Florverde.
And there is no comparable program in the United States.
Some flower buyers are deciding to skip the conventional floriculture industry altogether by choosing organically grown flowers. "Organic flowers are more about the environment and the health of farm workers, says Dave Smith of Diamond Organics in Watsonville, Calif. "With organic growers, water supplies aren't harmed by pesticides and other chemicals."
Adds Smith: "Sometimes organic flowers are not as cosmetically perfect as plants drenched in pesticides and preservatives, but they're beautiful, healthy plants that can be compared with anything a conventional grower can produce. And our customers tell us our flowers last longer."