Consilience Productions
Essays

Bloomin' Hazard -
 --  pesticide use in the flower industry

by Debra Bokur

Is There More To Your Bouquet Than Meets The Eye?

Above the perfumed surface of much of the cut-flower industry lies an unlovely cloud of toxic pesticide use. With Mother's Day nearly here, what's a concerned consumer to do?

The control and monitoring of chemical substances used in the production of both cut flowers and ornamentals is at the discretion of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA's human involvement, however, is limited to safety issues for growers and workers, and it does not address possible dangers from residues on flower products passed on to consumers.

"It's very possible that there are significant levels of pesticides on commercial flowers since the main criteria for marketability is appearance, with no restrictions on allowable residues," explains Dr. Susan Kegley, a staff scientist and program coordinator for the Pesticide Action Network (PANNA). "This leads growers to apply pesticides for `insurance' rather than just the minimum required for pest control."

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, is not satisfied with the EPA's evaluation of non-dietary pesticide exposure. "The area is under-regulated," he says. "Pesticide tolerances reviewed by the EPA are restricted to consumption. Neither the volatility of chemicals in an indoor environment, nor whether pesticide residues may be absorbed by the skin during handling of flowers is addressed." The lack of regulation may be enough to make you think twice about sending Mom a dozen roses--especially if you happen to be on good terms with her.

Field of Dreams

How big is the issue? In California alone, over 3,000 acres of flowers were grown in greenhouses in 1998, with approximately 12,000 additional acres grown in outdoor nursery settings. And if you think any of those greenhouses or fields are equipped with giant, airtight domes, think again. Pesticide drift to nearby homes, farms and farmworkers is uncontrolled. Even in greenhouse settings, says Kegley, "No special precautions are required. All applied pesticides are free to travel at will."

If your flower purchase happens to originate outside of the U.S., the dangers increase dramatically. While there are laws that require imported foods to be border-checked for residues, no such restrictions exist for flowers, as they are not intended for consumption. "Residue and consumers has never been a big concern of the EPA," confirms EPA environmental scientist Peg Perreault. "There are no guidelines for determining residues for either ornamentals or cut flowers."

"Not everything is evaluated," says Feldman. "Screens are used, but they are incapable of detecting all pesticides; nor do they reveal all of the chemicals used during production." Several years ago, he says, there was a crisis in the U.S. involving the use of a fungicide marketed by DuPont as Benlate. "It was a known carcinogen, widely used in greenhouses," he explains. "People working with plants sprayed with this substance were getting sick. The flowers were going into people's homes. The issue was never really resolved, and the product was never banned. It's still on the market."

The EPA's website contains a handy page reminiscent of the canary-in-a-coalmine approach to safety entitled "In Case of Pesticide Poisoning." The less-than-reassuring list of possible symptoms includes headaches, sweating, loss of coordination and coma.

A Rose By Any Other Name

But there is hope. Mani Kordestany, a long-time partner at Ford Farm in Purcellville, Virginia, suggests being innovative this holiday. Instead of a bouquet of cut flowers that will fade within a few days, consider indulging Mom with a crate full of lush organic herbs. Not only will they keep for months, but they also can be added to a garden or grown continuously in pots. Kord, who grows pesticide-free roses beneath protective cheesecloth coverings, also suggests flowers such as jasmine and passionflower, which flourish without pesticide use. Checking with small, local farms often yields a surprising number of organically grown options. Local natural products stores, florists and farmers' markets also offer varieties of organically grown cut flowers and potted herbs, though the selection varies greatly depending upon geographical location and season.

It's hard to tell by the vibrant, color-drenched displays in most retail florist showrooms what growing process flowers have--or haven't--been subjected to. David Snyder, manager of Flower Works in St. Augustine, Florida, has worked in the retail flower business for more than 10 years. Snyder says if you're concerned about pesticide use, ask whether or not the flowers were domestically grown. Because of those stringent import laws, flowers grown outside of the U.S. most likely will have been subjected to the most intense spraying. "Almost 85 percent of our roses, daisies and mums come from Colombia and Ecuador," he says. "They must be insect-free before crossing the U.S. border." The emphasis on imports is due in large part to their availability. "Ecuador has a year-round growing season, with a mean temperature of 72 degrees and plenty of rainfall," explains Snyder. Many florists, including Flower Works, offer seasonal alternatives such as organically grown herbs.

The types of chemicals used and the species of flowers grown vary from one area to another. While the hazards posed by these chemicals most directly affect the people working with them at a production level, they also significantly impact the environment, those living in areas where flowers are produced, and, in all likelihood, anyone who carries home a bouquet in their arms. The most commonly used pesticides include highly toxic chemicals called fumigants, fungicides and insecticides. Like fungicides, insecticides are used directly on flower blossoms, so the potential for consumer exposure exists. In place of pesticides, organic growers employ biological controls such as predatory and parasitic insects and bacteria, all of which effectively control pests in growing flowers.

The EPA does, of course, have guidelines for growers and workers that require compliance with EPA-determined restricted entry levels (REIs). These guidelines, known as the Worker Protection Standard, determine what amount of time must pass before a worker may safely enter a pesticide-treated area or handle plants sprayed with pesticides. The EPA also dictates the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and adherence to other safety measures such as proper disposal of PPE. Since the early 1990s, the rose industry consistently has asked for exceptions to established REIs, citing the potential for economic loss if hand harvesting does not occur within a specified, limited time. The EPA granted these exceptions, with provisions that the stringent use of PPE and other safety measures be monitored by growers.

Next time you decide to send a message with flowers, be careful what you choose to say. You can reduce any possible risks to yourself and to the recipients of your good intentions by talking openly with your florist. If the answers don't make you feel good, keep shopping until you find a retail outlet with your best health in mind. CONTACT: Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP, (202) 543-5450, www.beyondpesticides.org; Farmworker Justice Fund, (202)776-1757, www.fwjustice.org; PANNA, (415) 981-6205, www.panna.org.

DEBRA BOKUR stops to smell pesticide-free flowers deep in the Rocky Mountains, where she writes on travel, health and the environment.

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