Dangerous Beauty

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.

The industry defends its reliance on pesticides. The Society of American Florists’ Jennifer Sparks says most of them are low in toxicity and have a short residual life. ‘In Colombia, flower growers can only use pesticides approved in the United States,’ she explains. The Florists’ Review’s David Coake admits he hasn’t followed the issue closely: ‘We don’t know too much about pesticides, but we’ve heard there’s not a problem,’ he says.

Consumers concerned about pesticide-doused flowers are right to be worried, says Richard Wiles, vice president of research for the Environmental Working Group. According to a 1997 EWG study, California-grown roses had 1,000 times the level of cancer-causing pesticides as comparable food products. Consumers are buying roses that, toxicity levels suggest, should be handled by workers wearing protective gear. Testing leaves and petals of roses from California, New Hampshire, Colorado, Canada, and Colombia, EWG found two probable human carcinogens; three Category I pesticides (the most hazardous); and three neurotoxins–at up to 50 times the amount allowed in food.

Terril Nell, professor of floriculture at the University of Florida, argues that pesticide misuse is not as prevalent as some researchers suggest. Growers have an incentive not to overapply pesticides simply because they’re so expensive, he says. The industry could make more use of integrated pest management (organic methods, biological controls, and natural insecticides) to reduce pesticide use, he adds. Wiles thinks the problem is more basic: ‘Rose growers have repeatedly failed to adopt even the most rudimentary advances in pesticide management practices,’ he says.

High demand puts pressure on the often-antiquated ships, delivery trucks, and planes that transport flowers to buyers; the result is both air and water pollution. In Colombia, one 35-ton cargo plane needs to leave Colombia every three hours to fly the country’s flowers to overseas markets. Researchers have witnessed spilled pesticides running undiluted right into the ground, and say that repeatedly sprayed pesticides enter the water table. Flower-growing regions in the Netherlands, long famous as the world’s flower capital, have heavily contaminated water and air, report Dorren and Maharaj. Flower growers use water so intensely in developing regions that groundwater levels have sunk and rivers have dwindled. A dismal lack of wastewater treatment, acknowledged by Nell, poses additional threats to regional water supplies.

Part of the problem, Thrupp says, lies in unrestricted markets: If the United States and other wealthy countries were to set guidelines for pesticide residues, producers would have an incentive to lower chemical use. Some European countries are already establishing cooperatives with growers concerned about pesticides and workers’ health. Lynn Byczynski, author of The Flower Farmer (Chelsea Green, 1997), says that organically grown flowers, available at local farmers’ markets and natural food stores, are another option. But be sure to ask where flowers originate and how they were grown: Byczynski has found pesticide-laden chrysanthemums at a natural foods market.

Tracey C. Rembert is publications associate for the Center for a New American Dream. From E Magazine (May/June 1999). Subscriptions: $20/yr. from Box 2047, Marion, OH 43506.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.