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Subject: Next time you buy flowers, consider this...
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E/The Environmental Magazine: May-June 1999


                              Dangerous Beauty

                            By Tracey C. Rembert

   Driving through central Costa Rica below the Tilaran Mountains,
   travelers see a hillside blanketed with exotic flowers. But the
   bucolic vision is immediately undercut by the sight of a semi-rusted
   drum, etched with a skull-and-crossbones warning. Workers--mostly
   women--dip plants ready for shipping into a noxious-looking brew. The
   workers 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 and very 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 possibly harbored in the plants,
   growers use any means at their disposal--including banned and
   unregistered pesticides (up to one-fifth of pesticide use), heavy
   loads of synthetic growth hormones and fertilizers, and an illiterate,
   underpaid minority workforce, reports the World Resources Institute

                                     Photo  K. Rice/H. Armstrong Roberts
    Beach debris is just the visible part of the pollution affecting many
       US beaches. East Hampton beach (right) is a cleanup success story.
                                            K. Rice/H. Armstrong Roberts

   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 having valuable shipments rejected by customs
   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 [5]The Game of the Rose,
   note that floriculture consumes more pesticides than any other
   agricultural sector. In order to meet the flurry of holiday sales,
   particularly Mother's Day, U.S. florists have relied heavily upon
   imports in recent years to supplement flowers grown here, mainly in
   California. Only 40 percent of U.S. demand is met domestically.

   Floral workers--the sprayers and handlers--suffer the brunt of the
   trade's 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 Francisco-based Pesticide Education Center
   says that many of the pesticides in use 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
   U.S. 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 pesticides used are low
   in toxicity and have a short residual life. "In Colombia, flower
   growers can only use pesticides approved in the U.S.," says Sparks.
   The Florist 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 have a right to be,
   says Richard Wiles, vice president of research for the Environmental
   Working Group (EWG). According to a 1997 EWG study, California-grown
   roses had 1,000 times the level of cancer-causing pesticides as
   comparable food products. Wiles says that consumers are buying roses
   that, their toxicity levels suggest, should be handled by workers
   wearing protective gear. Testing the 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.

   Dr. 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. He does
   agree the industry could make more use of Integrated Pest Management
   (natural insecticides, organic methods and biological controls) to
   reduce pesticide use. Wiles thinks the problem is more basic than
   that. "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 the flowers, and results in 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 some pesticides running
   undiluted right into the ground when spilled, or else suffusing the
   water table after repeated outdoor sprayings. The Netherlands, long
   famous as the global "flower capital," has heavily contaminated water
   and air in its flower-growing regions, report Dorren and Maharaj.
   Water use is so intense that in developing regions, ground water
   levels have sunk and rivers have dwindled. A dismal lack of wastewater
   treatment, acknowledged by Nell, poses additional threats to regional
   water supplies.

   Thrupp says part of the problem lies in unrestricted markets: If
   countries like the U.S. were to set guidelines for flower residues,
   producers would have incentives to lower their chemical use. Some
   European countries are already establishing cooperatives with growers
   concerned about pesticide use and workers' health.

   Lynn Byczynski, author of [6]The Flower Farmer, says that
   organically-grown flowers are another sustainable option, available at
   local farmers' markets or natural food stores. But she notes that
   consumers should ask where flowers originate and how they were grown,
   as she found pesticide-laden chrysanthemums at a natural foods market.


     California Cut Flower Commission
     11344 Coloma Road, Suite 450
     Gold River, CA 95670
     Tel. (916) 852-5166

     Environmental Working Group
     1718 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 600
     Washington, DC 20009
     Tel. (202) 667-6982
     URL: [7]

     Society of American Florists
     URL: [8]

     World Resources Institute
     URL: [9]

    1990-1999, Earth Action Network