Pesticides and Cut Flowers

Fresh cut flowers: fragrant, beautiful--and often doused with pesticides

  • Joby Warrick
  • Jun 01, 2000
He was called El Diablo--"the devil"--and he pops into Dalila Guzman´s head whenever she thinks about her 26 years as a laborer in Southern California´s rose industry. The man was an ordinary worker whose job was to smear liquid pesticide by hand on pipes and fixtures in the greenhouse where Guzman worked. The concoction reeked of sulfur--"like brimstone," she says--and triggered instant headaches. The throbbing grew even worse on days when pesticide crews set off chemical "bombs" that engulfed whole buildings in hellish fumes.

"The only thing you could do was hold your nose and run as fast as you could," recalls Guzman, who frequently stumbled onto fogs of the chemicals while retrieving plants from freshly sprayed rooms. Eventually, Guzman´s headaches forced her to quit her job. But groups who track pesticide use on commercial flowers say the problems can extend beyond headaches--and beyond greenhouses.

Growers of flowers, the most delicate of agricultural crops, are traditionally heavy users of farm chemicals, including some that are highly toxic or suspected to cause cancer. In recent months, reports from environmental and labor watchdog groups have suggested that U.S. and foreign workers are overexposed to harmful chemicals each year as producers race to deliver floral perfection to the marketplace. And at least some flowers still carry significant amounts of pesticide residues when they are sold to consumers, according to a draft analysis by an environmental group that tested roses sold in 1998 by retailers.

"There are no limits on the amount of pesticide residues on these plants," says Richard Wiles, vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group, which sponsored the tests. "The result is a highly toxic workplace and a highly toxic rose."

The flower industry dismisses such characterizations as wildly exaggerated. There´s no evidence that consumers have been harmed by chemical traces left on flowers after spraying, pesticide manufacturers say. And state and federal laws strictly regulate worker exposure to pesticides, says Peter Moran, executive vice president of the Society of American Florists, a trade group representing flower growers, wholesalers and retailers. "Many of our growers are family businesses with several generations of the same family working in the greenhouses," he says. "They´re not going to do anything that would jeopardize their own health."

But watchdog groups say a lack of restrictions on chemical residues encourages both overspraying and the use of more dangerous pesticides--practices that can increase risks for workers and the environment. "If there are no speeding laws, people speed," says Wiles.

To test whether pesticides were accompanying those roses to the market, Wiles´ group analyzed eight flower samples purchased from retailers or by phone. Roses were chosen because of their popularity and growers´ traditionally heavy use of chemicals on them. Many chemicals break down into harmless by-products over time, but Wiles´ group detected a dozen different pesticides in their tests, including two that are listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as probable carcinogens. One of those pesticides, iprodione, was detected in one sample at a level 50 times higher than the amount allowed in food, Wiles says. Iprodione has been shown to cause cancer in rats.

The researchers found that flowers from the United States are just as likely as those from other countries to hold pesticide residues. And for now, says Wiles, the only way for flower lovers to be certain they´re avoiding pesticides on blossoms is to grow their own. "There´s no viable practical advice for removing the chemicals," he says.

Still, although flower petals sometimes end up in salads or are candied, flowers generally aren´t eaten, and Wiles´ study stops short of suggesting that even such relatively high levels of pesticide residues would pose a threat to most consumers. "We don´t want to be alarmist," he says. But some children and people with chemical sensitivities could experience mild symptoms--sneezing or headaches, for example--that they might assume were simply an allergic reaction. "For these people life can become a big jigsaw puzzle, where you try to figure out what´s causing the problem," Wiles says.

Small doses of toxics from multiple sources--such as indoor pesticides, tick and flea treatments and food residues--also can add up, notes Erik Olson, a former EPA official and now a senior attorney for the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. "The body can´t tell if the chemical came from a fresh cut flower, from the bagel you ate this morning or from touching your pet," he says. And you don´t necessarily have to eat or even touch a sprayed flower to come in contact with the poison. Some dried pesticide residue is semivolatile and can leap from one object to another (see "Your Health," April/May 1999).

For workers, the exposures can be much more direct. In Latin America, economic pressures and generally weaker environmental laws have created a powerful incentive to overuse pesticides. To gain access to lucrative U.S. markets, exporters first have to get past U.S. Customs, with its stiff zero-tolerance policy toward pests and disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture´s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is not equipped to test imported flowers for pesticide residues, but it can reject an entire shipment over a single beetle or a splotch of fungus, agency officials confirm.

Heavy chemical use is the growers´ best hedge against rejection. In some Ecuadorian farms, men who applied pesticides during a 1995 study wore masks, but women who worked beside them as pruners had no protection, found Lori Ann Thrupp, who conducted research on pesticide practices for the World Resources Institute. The women, typically the youngest and lowest-paid workers in the greenhouses, frequently complained of dizziness and nausea. "The pesticide fumes in these greenhouses were overwhelming; they´d practically knock you over," says Thrupp. "The smell alone was an indication of the high levels, and workers were being exposed to this on a daily basis."

In the United States, state and federal regulators have sought to limit direct exposures of workers to pesticides. Federal laws, for example, require safety equipment for applicators and adequate ventilation in greenhouses. Unprotected workers are barred from immediately entering areas where pesticides have been applied.

The floriculture industry also is trying to raise safety standards, says Moran of the Society of American Florists. The society has worked with the EPA to develop pesticide-training films in both English and Spanish, and it is promoting safer practices in developing countries, he says.

While maintaining that the vast majority of growers use pesticides safely, Moran says the industry is encouraging a switch to more environmentally friendly pest control. "All of us are really focused on ways to reduce pesticide use," he says. Still, even in this country, each year brings a new crop of accidental poisonings in the flower industry, many of which are not reported. In California, one of the few states to keep detailed records on pesticide accidents, ornamental plants ranked fifth among all crops in the number of documented acute poisonings, according to a 1999 analysis by the nonprofit Pesticide Action Network North America.The report documented lapses in the state´s enforcement of pesticide regulations, especially those requiring training of the industry´s largely immigrant workforce. Some workers said they were afraid to report exposures and illnesses out of fear of losing jobs or U.S. residency, according to Margaret Reeves, an agricultural ecologist with the group.

Managers or even workers themselves thwart some of the safeguards intended to prevent exposure from drifting vapors or pesticide residues. The report´s investigators found that in California greenhouses, workers who were supposed to wear gloves frequently didn´t use them because they interfered with production, according to Anne Katten of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, which contributed to the report. "You have a combination of intensive pesticide use and intensive hand labor," she says. "In an indoor situation, the residues and vapors may not dissipate."

With regard to some flower crops, pressure from overseas competitors has led to a weakening of protections for U.S. workers. Since 1994, the rose industry has consistently won a waiver from the EPA to allow workers to reenter a greenhouse shortly after pesticides are applied. (The waiver expired last fall, and agency officials say they do not intend to renew it.) Industry officials had complained that regulations requiring a time lag of up to 48 hours after chemical applications had put them at a competitive disadvantage.

Workers reentering the greenhouses are supposed to wear protective gear, but some have refused because the equipment is cumbersome, according to Wiles. He adds, "The public, meanwhile, is buying roses from these greenhouses within 24 hours of the last spray, during a time when workers normally wouldn´t be allowed to handle the same roses without protective equipment."

Joby Warrick is a staff writer for The Washington Post.

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