March 2005 / Links updated 2012 PUTTING THE BLOOM BACK
The streets of Manhattan are littered with flower stands -- a terrible temptation for a flower-lover like myself. On a cold winter's evening, in particular, the prospect of bringing spring cheer home in a paper wrapper is almost irresistible. I can't think of a better way to dispel the seasonal gloom.
Imagine my dismay, then, when I learned that flowers are typically grown with an arsenal of chemicals, including some that may cause neurological problems, reproductive problems, cancer and even genetic damage.
It wasn't the danger to my own health that alarmed me. My passing and very occasional contact with store-bought flowers wouldn't put me at serious risk, despite the fact that residues are actually quite substantial. (A sample of roses tested by the Environmental Working Group in 1997 found up to 50 times the residues allowed in food.) Farm workers are another story. They're exposed to the pesticides for hours every day -- and for what? I hated to think it was me.
While workers in the United States are to some extent protected by safety regulations governing pesticide use, those in Latin America -- where 70 percent of our flowers are grown -- have few safeguards. They often have to apply dangerous chemicals without proper training or handle treated flowers without protective gear. Or they may be expected to continue working in greenhouses while spraying is going on. When they go home at the end of the day in contaminated clothes, their children may be exposed. Or the children may actually work on the farms and be exposed directly. (It's estimated that some 20 percent of flower farm workers in Ecuador are kids.) Some of the chemicals used are so toxic, they're banned in the United States altogether.
The situation has recently begun to improve in some places, due, among other things, to international pressure, especially from Europe, but the change so far has been slow. Meanwhile, studies conducted in Ecuador, Colombia and Costa Rica have found symptoms in more than 50 percent of workers of chemical effects on the nervous system, such as headaches, nausea, blurred vision and fatigue. One study in Colombia found a higher level of miscarriages, premature births and congenital deformities. A study in Mexico turned up evidence that genetic damage might be taking place.
And what of the impacts on the environment? Data is scarce. However, groundwater contamination and polluted runoff are major concerns, as is overuse of water resources. One highly toxic fumigant used in floriculture, methyl bromide, is an ozone depleter.
It's enough to make you throw up your hands and vow to "buy American," but that wouldn't be a fair response. The flower industry is important to a number of Latin American economies, providing employment and, often, relatively good wages to people who might otherwise find neither. In other words, the benefits are as real as the risks.
Anyway, it's not as if our own flower industry has forsworn chemicals. Domestic flowers are grown with tons of the stuff, which gets into our air, water and soil and is absorbed and ingested by wildlife. Worker safety might be better here than in Latin America, but is not good enough.
As with food, the way around the problem is to buy flowers grown organically. While organic varieties still make up a small portion of the flower market, they are available -- both from Latin American and domestic sources -- online, if not at your local store.
To complicate matters, I feel I have to mention the cost -- in energy use and pollution -- of flying in flowers from faraway places, whether Latin America or the other side of the United States. Obviously, locally grown organic flowers would be a much better choice. However, these may not be an option for winter birthdays or Valentine's Day if you live up north.
I say, fly the things in for the special occasions. But if you want flowers year-round just to brighten your home, try drying the ones you get in the warmer months. The colors may not be as vivid, but they're awfully cheery all the same.
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
U.S. Customs doesn't inspect non-food agricultural imports for pesticide residues, only for pests. If pests are found, the shipment can be rejected. This gives foreign growers a powerful incentive to fumigate their wares with high doses of chemicals. If Customs checked for residues as well, it would presumably change growers' practices.
As winter winds down, I like to stop by the green market for pussy willows. I've found that if I put them in vases without water, they last for years.
Hang to dry.
My favorite flowers for drying are roses. I leave them in water to enjoy until they seem near the end of their fresh period. Then I cut off the leaves, bundle them together in a rubber band and hang them upside down from a nail or tack for a couple of weeks. When they're fully dried, I put them in vases -- or just leave them hanging. They look pretty both ways.
When you bring home flowers, follow these steps to keep them fresher longer:
1) Use a clean vase that has been washed with hot soapy water to get rid of bacteria.
2) Pluck off leaves that would be below the water level.
3) Recut the stems under water. Make cuts on an angle.
4) Fill the vase with lukewarm water. (Some varieties prefer cold, but not most).
5) Feed the flowers with sugar, acid and an anti-bacterial agent. A common recommendation is one part lemon-lime soda to three parts water, plus a quarter teaspoon of bleach per quart.
6) Change the water every other day and keep in a cool place.
--------------------------------- Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.