Dangerous Beauty

Laced with pesticides, cut flowers pack a potent punch

| November/December 1999

Driving through central Costa Rica below the Tilaran Mountains, travelers see a hillside blanketed with exotic flowers. But the sight of a rusty drum, etched with a skull-and-crossbones warning, dispels the bucolic vision; workers--mostly women--dip plants ready for shipping into a noxious-looking brew. They are bare-armed, with no gloves or face masks to protect them from the pesticides vital to the international floriculture market.

Flowers are emerging as a stable, marketable international crop, earning up to five times per acre what fruit crops bring in. To meet the high aesthetic standards of the American market (the largest for cut flowers) and to kill insects that may be harbored in the plants, growers use any means at their disposal--including banned and unregistered pesticides; heavy loads of synthetic growth hormones and fertilizers; and an illiterate, underpaid workforce--reports the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Pesticide use is not mandated by U.S. law, but bug-free flowers are. According to Wayne Burnett, import specialist with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's Plant Protection and Quarantine Division, the risk of valuable shipments being rejected by customs officials because of insect infestations 'stimulates people offshore to increase their pesticide use. There's a lot of economic pressure to keep those shipments from being rejected.'

Gaston Dorren and Niala Maharaj, authors of The Game of the Rose (International Books, 1996), note that floriculture consumes more pesticides than any other agricultural sector. In order to meet flurries of holiday sales, particularly for Christmas, U.S. florists in recent years have relied heavily on imports to supplement flowers grown here, mainly in California. Only 40 percent of U.S. flower demand is met domestically.

Floral workers--the sprayers and handlers--feel the brunt of pesticide use: Two-thirds of Colombian flower workers suffer from headaches, nausea, impaired vision, rashes, and asthma, reports Pesticide Action Network North America. A study published by the Netherlands' Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment reports that Dutch floral workers are exposed to pesticide concentrations of up to 60 times the amount considered safe.

Dr. Marion Moses of the San Franciscoñbased Pesticide Education Center says that many of the pesticides are highly toxic: 'One of the chemicals widely used in greenhouses for flowers is Temik (aldicarb), and that has caused serious problems.' Methyl bromide--an ozone destroyer and a Category I acute toxin, among the most dangerous toxic substances known--is also heavily used in Latin America and the United States on flower crops, according to WRI's Lori Ann Thrupp. 'Unlike food products, flowers are not inspected for pesticide residues by importers, so producers have relatively little concern,' she explains.